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August 24, 2016

Could your brain be hacked? Criminals could soon control your thoughts, say researchers

News: 'Brainjacking' could soon become a reality.

By Ellie Burns

They can hack phones, trains and automobiles, but now the human brain might be at risk from hackers and cyber attacks.

According to Laurie Pycroft, A PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, hackers could one day take remote control of humans by hacking devices like brain implants.

Dubbed by the PhD student as ‘brainjacking’, the risk lies in brain impants, an advanced implant technology that is now starting to become possible through advances in technology and medicine.

Writing for The Conversation, Pycroft talked about the use of brain implants for deep brain simulation. These implants consist of implanted electrodes embedded deep inside the brain and connected to wires running under the skin. These wires carry signals from an implanted stimulator. Essentially the implant acts like a cardiac pacemaker – a device which has been successfully hacked in the past. Pycroft said:

"Targeting different brain regions with different stimulation parameters gives neurosurgeons increasingly precise control over the human brain, allowing them to alleviate distressing symptoms.

"However, this precise control of the brain, coupled with the wireless control of stimulators, also opens an opportunity for malicious attackers to go beyond the more straightforward harms that could come with controlling insulin pumps or cardiac implants, into a realm of deeply troubling attacks."

Possible attacks cited by Pycroft include altering simulation settings to create more pain for a patient, or inhibiting the ability to move. Although ‘brainjacking’ would be difficult to achive due to the technological competence needed, ‘a sophisticated attacker could potentially even induce behavioural changes such as hypersexuality or pathological gambling, or even exert a limited form of control over the patient’s behaviour by stimulating parts of the brain involved with reward learning in order to reinforce certain actions.”

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Although Pycroft makes the important point that there is no evidence to suggest that any of these implants have been hacked in the real-world, the Oxford University student did stress the importance for device makers, regulators, scientists, engineers and clinicians to consider the attacks before they become a reality.

"The future of neurological implants is bright, but even a single high-profile incident could irreparably damage public confidence in the safety of these devices, so the risk of brainjacking should be taken seriously before it’s too late." Pycroft said.

 

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