Finally? The start of a social cyber contract? Four new rights to consider in the emerging era of brain-tech

Bravo to Sigal Samuel, Rafael Yuste and Vox for publishing a short, visionary start to what we hope is a broad-based discussion as we move from memory lane to the memory superhighway!

4 new rights we may need enshrined in law

Several countries are already pondering how to handle “neurorights.” In Chile, two bills that would make brain data protection a human right will come before parliament for a vote in November, thanks in part to the advocacy of neuroscientist Rafael Yuste. In Europe, the OECD is expected this year to release a new set of principles for regulating the use of brain data.

1. The right to cognitive liberty

You shouldhave the right to freely decide you want to use a given neurotechnology or to refuse it.

In China, the government is already mining data from some employees’ brains by having them wear caps that scan their brainwaves for depression, anxiety, rage, or fatigue. “If your employer wants you to wear an EEG headset to monitor your attention levels, that might qualify as a violation of the cognitive liberty principle,” Ienca said, because even if you’re told that wearing the device is optional, you’ll probably feel implicit pressure to do so since you don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage.

He added that the US military is also looking into neurotechnologies to make soldiers more fit for duty. Down the line, that could include ways to make them less empathetic and more belligerent. Soldiers may be pressured to accept interventions.

“There is already military-funded research to see if we can monitor decreases in attention levels and concentration, with hybrid BCIs that can ‘read’ deficits in attention levels and ‘write’ to the brain to increase alertness through neuromodulation. There are DARPA-funded projects that attempt to do so,” Ienca said, referring to the Defense Department’s advanced research agency.

2. The right to mental privacy

You shouldhave the right to seclude your brain data or to publicly share it.

Ienca emphasized that neurotechnology has huge implications for law enforcement and government surveillance. “If brain-reading devices have the ability to read the content of thoughts,” he said, “in the years to come governments will be interested in using this tech for interrogations and investigations.”

The right to remain silent and the principle against self-incrimination — enshrined in the US Constitution — could become meaningless in a world where the authorities are empowered to eavesdrop on your mental state without your consent.

It’s a scenario reminiscent of the sci-fi movie Minority Report, in which a special police unit called the PreCrime Division identifies and arrests murderers before they commit their crimes.

3. The right to mental integrity (ie no- “brainjacking”_

You shouldhave the right not to be harmed physically or psychologically by neurotechnology.

BCIs equipped with a “write” function can enable new forms of brainwashing, theoretically enabling all sorts of people to exert control over our minds: religious authorities who want to indoctrinate people, political regimes that want to quash dissent, terrorist groups seeking new recruits.

What’s more, devices like those being built by Facebook and Neuralink may be vulnerable to hacking. What happens if you’re using one of them and a malicious actor intercepts the Bluetooth signal, increasing or decreasing the voltage of the current that goes to your brain — thus making you more depressed, say, or more compliant?

Neuroethicists refer to that as brainjacking. “This is still hypothetical, but the possibility has been demonstrated in proof-of-concept studies,” Ienca said, adding, “A hack like this wouldn’t require that much technological sophistication.”

4. The right to psychological continuity

You shouldhave the right to be protected from alterations to your sense of self that you did not authorize.

In one study, an epileptic woman who’d been given a BCI came to feel such a radical symbiosis with it that, she said, “It became me.” Then the company that implanted the device in her brain went bankrupt and she was forced to have it removed. She cried, saying, “I lost myself.”

Ienca said that’s an example of how psychological continuity can be disrupted not only by the imposition of a neurotechnology but also by its removal. “This is a scenario in which a company is basically owning our sense of self,” he said.

Another threat to psychological continuity comes from the nascent field of neuromarketing, where advertisers try to figure out how the brain makes purchasing decisions and how to nudge those decisions along. The nudges operate below the level of conscious awareness, so these noninvasive neural interventions can happen without us even knowing it. One day a neuromarketing company is testing a subliminal technique; the next, you might find yourself preferring product A over product B without quite being sure why.

Consumer advocate organizations have raised the alarm about neuromarketing. Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, has said that adult advertising should be regulated “if the advertising is now purposely designed to bypass those rational defenses” that formerly allowed us to discern what’s true and untrue.

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