August 27, 2012
Be Careful What You Think: Researchers Find A Way To Hack Into Your Brain
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
Our minds are often the most secure place we can go to think thoughts otherwise unspeakable to human ears. We may not agree with every thought we have and might even be ashamed by many of them, yet there they are, striking the core of our minds like lightning; quick and unpredictable. As such, it could be quite embarrassing and frightening to know someone not only has access to our brains, but knows what we´re thinking.
Welcome to fear, my friends, as researchers from the University of California and University of Oxford in Geneva have found a way to “hack” into the human brain. Rather than steal our thoughts, however, these scientists have used this hacking technique to pull bank information, PINs and other sensitive data stored inside the murky folds of our brains. Most frightening of all, these researchers were able to perform this hack by using an existing, readily available tool, rather than having to craft one of their own.
Using the Emotiv “brain-computer interface” these researchers were able to discover a “backdoor,” as it were, into the human brain and lift information from it.
To perform this hack, the researchers placed the Emotiv EPOC device on their subjects´ heads, then placed them in front of a computer screen which displayed images of familiar places and people. Then, the researchers tracked the brain waves from the headset, specifically the brainwaves known as P300.
This brainwave is used by the brain to recognize meaningful people, places or things. For instance, the P300 signal is used by the brain to call back a previous conversation or recall a piece of information a person might refer to every day, like a PIN.
P300 gets its name because these waves are released around 300 milliseconds after a brain recognizes the person, place or thing it is shown. To test this new hack, researchers showed their subjects images of Barak Obama. The P300 wave spiked shortly after the subjects saw this image, confirming recognition in the subjects´ brains.
Next, the subjects were shown an image of their own house, which also caused the P300 wave to spike shortly thereafter.
“These devices have access to your raw EEG [electroencephalography, or electrical brain signal] data, and that contains certain neurological phenomena triggered by subconscious activities,” said Ivan Martinovic, a member of the faculty in the department of computer science at Oxford in a statement.
“So the central question we were asking with this work was, is this is a privacy threat?”
During the course of their research, the team was able to obtain a subjects PIN 60% of the time with a one in ten chance. 40% of the time, the researchers were able to recognize at least the first number of the subjects´ PIN.
According to the subsequent paper resulting from this study, the researchers have said, “P300 can be used as a discriminative feature in detecting whether or not the relevant information is stored in the subject´s memory.”
“P300 has a promising use within interrogation protocols that enable detection of potential criminal details held by the suspect.”
The researchers were also concerned with how easy it was for them to obtain this information by using such a readily available and affordable device.
"The simplicity of our experiments suggests the possibility of more sophisticated attacks," writes the team in their paper.
"For example, an uninformed user could be easily engaged into 'mindgames' that camouflage the interrogation of the user and make them more cooperative. Furthermore, with the ever increasing quality of devices, success rates of attacks will likely improve."
For now, it seems the best way to protect your thoughts is to steer clear of any Emotiv headsets and refrain from thinking about your PINs and passwords.