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Academics have a plan to safeguard your brainwaves

As brainwave scanning headsets become more common, so do privacy concerns.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Our brainwaves may soon by subject to their own security protection under a plan outlined by academics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Technical University of Denmark.

Electroencephalographic (EEG) gadgets, such as Emotiv headsets, are able to read brain signals, allowing doctors to read people’s mood and detect whether someone is suffering from mental illness, prompting obvious privacy concerns regarding health data.

"An important complication of EEG signals is that they are highly personal like fingerprints, DNA, or portraits, thus EEG recordings can be used for identification and authentication of the users," the academics said in a paper.

"As the equipment for such data collection becomes more available and widely used, the opportunities for using the data are growing; at the same time however inherent privacy risks are mounting."

The Smartphone Brain Scanner will collect the data from EEG scanners on to a mobile phone and allow it to be uploaded to a server to be analysed by researchers without disclosing the raw signal, mitigating privacy concerns while facilitating fuller use of the data.

EEG technology has been in use for almost a century, but it is only recently that so-called "neuroheadsets" have seen wide use outside of laboratory settings. The rise of real-time data between doctors for medical usage has compounded concerns about privacy.

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According to the academics, large EEG databases are currently being built to house data, including the Brain Resources Database, which includes data from 2,000 "normative subjects" as well as a number of patients, and the Australian EEG Database which contains 18,500 EEG recordings.

The paper was written by Arkadiusz Stopczynski and Lars Kai Hansen, both of the Technical University of Denmark, and Dazza Greenwood and Alex Pentland of MIT.

"The time of personal neuroinformatics is coming, and such discussion is necessary before we end up with extremely sensitive data floating around wildly," they said.

"We should own our brain activity, an extremely valuable and sensitive asset that we should have the right to contribute for the public good."

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