What if you could read a person’s mind and detect their innermost secrets? What if you could then use that information to solve a violent crime? “Brain fingerprinting” technologies are making this prospect increasingly more plausible, and that has opened the door to a new area in ethics known as “neuro privacy.” What is brain fingerprinting, and what are some of the considerations that make it both an exciting development in neuro technology and a risky one?
How the EEG Can Map and “Read” the Brain
The “EEG” or electroencephalogram is a computer-generated analysis of the brain’s electrical activity. As a “map” of the brain, it is often used in the medical and neuroscientific fields to find and treat areas of dysfunction and relieve the symptoms of certain disorders. For example, EEG-guided, neuroscientific treatment has helped to reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia for people in early recovery from drugs and alcohol.
The EEG as a Tool for “Fingerprinting” the Brain
Further afield, when neuroscientists talk about “brain fingerprinting,” they are talking about the still relatively experimental use of the electroencephalogram (EEG) to map the brain and its brainwaves in response to certain stimuli associated with a crime. Examples of these stimuli might be pictures taken at the crime scene or words and phrases referring to key details of an investigation. The EEG then measures the brain’s response to these stimuli and can identify characteristic patterns in brainwave activity. If a specific brainwave pattern, the P300-MERMER, appears, it means the brain has registered a particular stimulus as significant.
This “Aha!” reaction can be analyzed using statistical computing to determine the probability that it represents “information present” (meaning the subject knows the critical information) or “information absent” (meaning the subject does not). Some researchers say this allows them to tell when a person is lying with far greater accuracy than a polygraph, but as of now, brain fingerprinting has only been used in two criminal cases and there is a good deal of conjecture about its validity.
Neuro Privacy Considerations with Brain Fingerprinting Technologies
Experts in neuro privacy say the real challenge has to do with the uniquely sensitive nature of neuro data. Unlike other forms of health data—such as the results of a heart monitor, for example—an EEG map offers access to arguably much more sensitive information: a person’s thoughts, their emotions, conscience, and personality; essentially everything that makes them an individual.
Some would take issue with this claim and argue that brainwave patterns can tell very little about the actual content of someone’s thoughts. On the other hand, it is well within the realm of possibility that with continual advances in neuroscience and neuroscience technologies, tools like the EEG will only become more high-tech in their capacity to “read minds.” This has raised concerns that these developments are outpacing efforts to protect neuro privacy and that more should be done to ensure legal protections.
Currently, brain imaging data can qualify as “protected health information” when the healthcare provider administering the EEG is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). The same protections might pertain in criminal investigations that rely on brain data provided by a HIPAA-compliant provider. Still, once this data becomes available as part of an investigation and trial, the path to guaranteeing its privacy is murky, and scholars and ethicists seem to agree that more protections need to be put in place to ensure neuro privacy.
Neuro technologies are a promising frontier in science. Like other examples from the world of tech, though, their rapid development could outpace efforts to address their ethical challenges. Neuro privacy is a big one.