Neurotechnology and Privacy

By Paul Syers

Yesterday was National Data Privacy Day.  With that in mind, I’m curious as to what data privacy will mean, in a world of enhanced neurotechnologies.  Let me paint a picture for you.  Imagine we have the ability to read people’s memories.  Someone is suspected of a murder and police bring that person in for questioning.  There’s circumstantial evidence against this suspect, but enough that would give cause for a warrant to search their house.  Would this give the police a right to search the suspect’s memories? 

There are lots of implications from this one question.  For starters, it could greatly streamline the interrogation and trial process.  Just bring a bunch of people in and scan their brains. What need is there for a jury, if you have the evidence of the person’s own memories?  However, such an activity (reading someone’s memories) is also an invasion of privacy on a whole new level, and I’m not sure the ends (a direct way to discovering the truth of events) justify the means.  After all, we currently give criminal suspects some recourse from divulging information; we have the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. 

Now let’s change the picture slightly.  Let’s say we can’t read memories directly from the brain, but that this suspect uses a memory chip that plugs into their brain and stores the raw information of their memories (audio, visual, sensory, etc.) for them.  If you’d like, you can assume they were injured when they were younger in a way that impaired their brain’s ability to record memories, so the implant helps them with this disability.  The crucial question: do the authorities have the right to look at what’s on that memory chip?  It still feels like a huge invasion of privacy, but not as much as directly looking into someone’s brain. 

Pretty soon, we will have neural enhancements that directly and continuously interface with people’s brains.  This will probably begin with technologies designed to assist the disabled, but eventually it will spread to the mainstream.  When that happens, the data within these technologies should be protected by privacy laws.  The police cannot search your phone without a warrant, they shouldn’t be able to search a more private piece of technology without one either.

Just as there are limits on free speech, there should be limits on our right to the privacy of our data.  Police can search personal items such as cellphones and email records when they have a warrant to do so, and neural memory enhancement technology would fall under that category.  Advancements in neurotechnology will change what data we have access to, but it should not change our right to privacy over that data.

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