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This law and philosophy professor warns neurotechnology is also a danger to privacy


Neurotechnology directly links the human brain with computers. It has the potential to make us smarter and more alert, to make our everyday technology easier to use and even help us live longer, better lives. And law and philosophy professor Nita Farahany says a neurotechnology revolution is right around the corner.

NITA FARAHANY: Imagine a near-distant future in which it isn't just your heart rate or your oxygen levels or the steps that you're taking that you're tracking, but also your brain activity, where you're wearing wearable brain sensors that are integrated into your headphones and your earbuds.

CHANG: But what will happen to all this data, collected straight from the brain?

FARAHANY: If you can do so, so can your employer to track your productivity in the workplace or governments to interrogate your brain for any crimes that you might have committed.

CHANG: In her new book, "The Battle For Your Brain," Farahany argues that we should prepare for this rise in neurotechnology by establishing an international human right to what she calls cognitive liberty. As an Iranian American, she's quite familiar with the consequences of silencing free speech.

FARAHANY: All of my first cousins, my aunts, my uncles all still live in Iran - having conversations with them where they're afraid to speak or to share what's happening. When the Green Revolution was happening, they were afraid to even tell us about anything that was happening. They would, you know, sort of say, no, no, no. It's - nothing's happening here. Everything's fine. Seeing that - I think it shapes your worldview, and it certainly shaped mine. It shapes the way in which I approach technologies to recognize that it can and is misused...

CHANG: Yeah.

FARAHANY: ...On a regular basis.

CHANG: Well, you lay out some pretty ominous scenarios with neurotechnology that present real ethical dilemmas, and I want to take up a few of them one by one. But first, I want to talk about this idea that you introduce called the right to cognitive liberty, which you argue could be directly threatened by advances in neurotechnology. How would you define the right to cognitive liberty?

FARAHANY: So the simplest definition I can give is it's the right to self-determination over our brains and mental experiences. I describe it as a right from other people interfering with our brains, but also a right to - a right to access and to change and to enhance - to decide what our own mental experiences would be. It directs us, as an international human right, to update existing human rights - the right to privacy, the right to freedom of thought, which ought to also protect us from having our thoughts used against us or manipulated.

And the right to self-determination has been understood as a collective right, a political right. But it also really is foundational to almost every other right that we recognize within the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. And so I argue it should be a right to informational self-access, but also a right to make decisions about whether we enhance or diminish or change our own brains.

CHANG: All right. Well, let's talk about this set of rights within specific contexts. I want to start with the workplace - because that's a place I think so many of us can relate to - and the rise of workplace surveillance. What kind of data do you believe employers should be able to collect about their workers?

FARAHANY: When it comes to neurotechnology, there's already, in thousands of companies worldwide, at least basic brain monitoring that's happening for some employees. And that usually is tracking things like fatigue levels if you're a commercial driver or if you're a miner - having brain sensors that are embedded in hard hats or baseball caps that are picking up your fatigue levels, which I think, in some instances, we, as a society, could think, actually, that's...

CHANG: That's legit.

FARAHANY: ...Legitimate. Yeah. That - you know, if it's...

CHANG: To keep people safe. Mmm hmm.

FARAHANY: ...A commercial driver - keep people safe. It can be an alert. And I think it depends on how it's done, but the idea of tracking a person's brain to see whether or not...

CHANG: Like a wandering mind?

FARAHANY: Literally to see whether or not they are focused or if their mind is wandering. When companies use it to see if their employees are paying attention and which ones are paying the most attention and which ones have periods of mind wandering and then using that as part of productivity scoring, it undermines morale.

CHANG: What about governments that, in the interest of protecting other individuals, seek access into our brains? Like, you bring up the 2002 movie "Minority Report," about how the government could stop murders before they happened by tapping into the brains of would-be killers. Can you see a world where the Supreme Court of the United States is one day considering cases involving the search and seizure of brain activity to prosecute individuals?

FARAHANY: A couple of weeks ago, I would have said that that was science fiction because, you know, the idea that, you know, you would actually obtain somebody's brain data and use it against them really belongs in the movies rather than in real life. And then I found out that, in a recent case, a defendant sought to introduce their own brain data to show that they were having an epileptic seizure instead of actually assaulting an officer at the time.

CHANG: Wow. It's like a brain alibi.

FARAHANY: It literally is a brain alibi. And we saw on the Alex Murdaugh case all of the different technological information that was introduced...

CHANG: Yeah.

FARAHANY: ...You know, from different kind of eavesdropping of what's happening with our everyday technology. And as brain sensors become part of our everyday technology, that's the transformation that I'm talking about in the book - is that brain sensors are being put into our everyday technology to make them multifunctional devices. We're going to be picking up a lot of incidental information from the brain that are going to make their way into criminal cases, are going to be introduced as evidence both to support a crime as well as evidence of alibis.

CHANG: Can you imagine a day when law enforcement will be seeking warrants into our brains?

FARAHANY: You know, I can. And there are already cases, both in the United States and worldwide, where governments are using so-called brain fingerprinting technology, where they look for these responses in the brain to presenting a person with images that only somebody who knew the details of the crime scene, for example, should be aware of. And the science is dubious, but it's happening.

CHANG: Let me ask you - you lay out guiding principles throughout this book for how best to handle neurotechnology and the advances in neurotechnology. But my question is, is the genie already out of the bottle? Like, how do people today ensure today that their privacy and personal liberties aren't taken away by neurotechnology? Is it possible?

FARAHANY: So I think we stand on the cusp of a revolution here. And cognitive liberty, I believe, is implicated by far more than just neurotechnology. There are so many ways in which our brains and mental experiences are being accessed and changed, but I don't think it's too late. I think that this - this last bastion of freedom before brain wearables become really widespread - is a moment at which we could decide we're going to lay down a set of rights and interests that favor individuals and their right to cognitive liberty and change the default.

If you want to get access to the data, you have to seek an exception to it. It isn't just by right or expectation that companies or governments can commodify that information. But we don't have much time. This book is, you know, a wake-up call. It's a call to action for everybody to be part of the conversation - to make the choices and to lay down that foundation now before it's too late to do so.

CHANG: Nita Farahany is the founding director of the Duke University Initiative for Science and Society. Her new book is "The Battle For Your Brain." Thank you very much.

FARAHANY: Thank you. That was really delightful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.