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Neuroscience Protecting our thoughts with human rights


Advances in neuroscience mean our minds may not be the last bastions of privacy we thought they were. Researchers from Switzerland have proposed the introduction of new human rights to protect the inner life.

The study, written by Marco Ienca and Roberto Andorno from the universities of Basel and Zurich, comes as a host of new advances in neuroscience and technology are allowing for unprecedented access to the data of the human brain.

Tracking online behaviour for targeted marketing based on cognitive data has become normal, while adventurous experiments in brain-computer interfaces are turning science fiction into reality. Just a few weeks ago, for example, Facebook confirmed it was researching technology which could directly transfer thoughts from sender to receiver without the need for a “detour” via a screen or keyboard.

Yet, like all technological advancements, this could cause problems if not managed correctly, say the authors of this new paper published in Life Sciences, Society and Policyexternal link. Misuse of new tools could easily lead to manipulation, they say, from the coercive changing of personalities to the frightening prospect of “brain-hacking”.

New human rights

To ensure that all of this is encompassed in a legal framework and that intellectual integrity is guaranteed, the researchers say a new human rights framework is needed. They propose four:

First, the right to mental privacy is key to ensuring that what happens in our minds stays part of our private sphere, and should not be “read” or invaded by new technologies. This is key when it comes to neuro-marketing studies: data that is not strictly relevant to the subject at hand should be rejected, they say.

The right to cognitive liberty is similar: this would protect individuals from being forced to reveal neuronal data against their will. This is particularly important for people in situations of dependency who may have constraints of choice: soldiers undergoing tests in the army, for example, or older people unaware of certain risks.

Third, the right to psychological continuity would ensure that our perception of our own sense of identity is not altered or distorted in an undesired way. This would apply to technologies and techniques of memory alteration and formation, or certain forms of surgery like Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).

And, finally, the right to mental integrity – which exists already in some treaties – should be updated to reflect the increasing threat of distress which could be caused by new technologies such as implants in the brain, say the researchers.

Protecting against mind-readers

According to Ienca, who is a PhD researcher at the University of Basel, the findings are far from science fiction. “In 10 to 15 years touch screens could be replaced or at least supplemented by brain interfaces," he says. This could lead to increasing amounts of our brain data becoming available online. "With this, we are virtually breaking a border, because the brain has been the last place of perfect privacy."

Indeed, certain sections of industry have been experimenting with such mind-invasive techniques for some time. Online advertising and “neuromarketing” is just one example, while entertainment companies are already experimenting with headsets which allow for gaming and communication using signals from the brain.

And recently, scientists in Chinaexternal link have conducted tests which have successfully, upon analyzing neurological signals, managed to piece together what the test-subject is thinking about. A mind-reading algorithm? Not quite, but the results could point in this direction.

The outcome of the Swiss researchers' proposals remains to be seen, but they point to the genetic revolution in the 1990s as a model of how existing rights could be updated: following the decoding of DNA in 1997, new rights to protect personal genetic data were introduced.

“We are now proposing a comparable update in the context of the new possibilities of neurotechnology," said Ienca. "We want to launch a public debate, and the extensions we are proposing are far from being conclusive."

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