A Scenic Tour of the Online World

Neurosecurity: Science (Not So) Fiction

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

I generally try to write on topics of direct interest to our audience – business owners and non-profits trying to figure out how to use the Web to build their businesses. This post is a bit of a departure, but it’s fascinating and likely to affect many or all of us in the coming decades.

Three computer scientists at the University of Washington wrote an article in the journal, Neurological FOCUS, entitled “Neurosecurity: Security and Privacy for Neural Devices.” The article discusses the dangers posed by the advances we’re making in medical implants, prostheses, and other devices. Specifically the neural networks that control them.

Vandals have already made medical-related mischief,  hacking a Website aimed at epileptics so that it displayed flashing images that might induce seizures, for example. But that’s small potatoes compared to the real damage they could do as more advanced medical devices becomes wired into neural nets.

My father has a pacemaker installed in his chest. He visits his doctor on a regular basis for check-ups, and his pacemaker gets a check-up, too. They don’t have to crack open his chest again, though. They simply wave a tool in front of his heart. It gathers data from the device which is downloaded to a diagnostic program and evaluated. Any adjustments that need to be made are made the same way.

Could a hacker slow my father’s heart? Speed it up? Kill him? Apparently, yes. But they’d have to get up close and personal. (Watch out for geeks, dad!) As more advanced devices are released – tools which can be monitored remotely – hackers no longer need to be in close proximity.

It would be bad enough if a prosthetic limb were removed from its owner’s control. (“Hey, let’s make that guy walk like John Cleese.”) More chilling, though, is the idea that access to the wireless signal could be used not to control the limb, but to control the areas of the brain that the prosthesis stimulates. Real live mind control, right out of a science fiction movie.

The real issue to me is that we never really seem to win the war against hackers. There’s always an error to exploit and someone willing, even eager, to exploit it, even if there’s nothing for them to gain personally. Is there any reason to put faith in our ability to prevent this hacking? We may be living in a science fiction movie  sooner than we think.

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