Of Mice, Men, and Meninges: Neurosecurity at the Last Bastion of Privacy

On August 27, 2014, the New York Times reported that neuroscientists at MIT had discovered a neurological basis for how the brain of mice links their emotions to their memories and how their emotions could be altered.1.

The MIT scientists labeled neurons in the brains of male mice with a light-sensitive protein and then used light pulses to switch those neurons on and off. They mapped patterns of neuron activity when, in response to an electric shock, the mice formed a negative memory; and when, in the presence of female mice, they formed a positive memory.

The mice that had first been shocked, which engendered a negative memory, were subsequently placed in the presence of female mice as scientists activated the neurons associated with this negative memory. In the presence of the female mice the negative memory became less negative. In the company of female mice, the male mice exhibited less fearful behavior when the neurons associated with the memory of the shock were activated. Similarly, the mice that had first spent time with female mice, which engendered a positive memory, were subsequently shocked as scientists activated the neurons associated with this positive memory. In the presence of the shock, the scientists noted that the stimulated positive memory became less enticing, as the mice froze more and sniffed less, standard measures of fear and reward in rodents. These findings provide a neurological basis for psychotherapy in which patients are encouraged to unearth a good memory to reduce the feelings associated with a bad memory that they have.

Noting that the experiments may eventually lead to therapies for psychological problems such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, the New York Times quoted David Moorman, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, as saying, “[i]magine you can go in and find a particular traumatic memory and turn it off or change it somehow.”

Manipulating memory, from effacement of bad memories to implantation of new memories, perhaps never experienced, has been a matter of speculation for some time. These experiments suggest that the pathway from speculation to manipulation may be shorter than we think and that it’s not to soon to consider issues of choice, coercion and privacy for the brain itself.

As proponents of cognitive enhancement, most transhumanists and other participants in the debate on human technological enhancement are familiar with the notion of cognitive liberty; they may, however, be less familiar with the allied notions of neurosecurity and neuroprivacy.

The principle of cognitive liberty [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_liberty] is a right to mental self-determination; it refers to person’s right to control his or her own mental processes, cognition and consciousness. Cognitive liberty has received some limited recognition in the United States. In the case of Sell v. United States 2., the Supreme Court examined whether a lower court had the power to make an order to forcibly administer antipsychotic medication to an individual who had refused such treatment, for the sole purpose of making them legally competent to stand trial.

The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics [http://www.cognitiveliberty.org] filed an amicus brief
[http://www.cognitiveliberty.org/9jcl/CCLE_Amicus_Brief.html] with the court highlighting the cognitive liberty issues raised by forcing a non-violent defendant to take psychotropic drugs against his or her will.3.

The Supreme Court held that while the lower court did retain the power to make such an order, it must do so only in rare circumstances, and where no less intrusive method is available. Though there is no explicit mention of cognitive liberty in the decision, it nonetheless upheld the right to keep one’s mind free from direct outside interference except in the rarest of circumstances.

While Sell v. United States offers a modicum of legal authority for the principle of cognitive liberty, neuroprivacy has not attained even this level of legal recognition. Neuroprivacy generally refers to privacy concerns with respect to mental and neurological functioning as revealed, for example, by neurodiagnostic imaging.4.

As such, neuroprivacy is concerned with rights of privacy to the neurological correlates of thoughts and feelings. Neurosecurity may be considered as a technical aspect of a right to neuroprivacy that calls for the design of neural devices that are secure in the face of adversarial attempts to co-opt their clinical functions to perform intrusive actions, possibly associated with increased patient morbidity and mortality.5.

It is uncertain whether neurosecurity is being adequately addressed in the design and programming of implantable neural devices, in the design and programming of neurodiagnostic equipment, and in the collection and storage of neurodata.6. We would all benefit from an assessment of the state of the art of neurohacking and neurosecurity in these domains.

The New York Times article on the manipulation of memories in mice is pointing to the same capacity in men. It’s not too early to begin protecting the contents of the meninges — last bastion of privacy for the mind — from an assault on the privacy of its thoughts and feelings by the government or others. It’s also not too early to advocate for the establishment of an international neurosecurity consortium to assess and minimize the risks of breaches of neuroprivacy, and to create practical neurosecurity manufacturing and programming standards for the biomedical industry, its information technology suppliers, health care providers and patients worldwide.

1. Pam Belluck, Scientists Take the Edge Off Bad Memories in Mice, N.Y. Times, Aug. 27, 2014, at A.16.
2. 539 U.S. 166 (2003).
3. Richard Glen Boire, Brief for The Center For Cognitive Liberty & Ethics as Amicus Curiae, Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166 (2003).
4. Are Your Thoughts Your Own?: “Neuroprivacy” and the Legal Implications of Brain Imaging, Report of the The Committee on Science and Law of the New York City Bar Association, appearing in 60 Record of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York 2, at (2005) http://www.nycbar.org/pdf/report/Neuroprivacy-revisions.pdf.
5. Denning, T., Matsuoka, Y., and Kohno, T., 2009. Neurosecurity: security and privacy for neural devices. Neurosurg Focus 27(1): E7, http://thejns.org/doi/pdf/10.3171/2009.4.FOCUS0985.
6. Hallinan, D., Schütz, P., Friedewald, M., and de Hert, P., 2014 Neurodata and Neuroprivacy: Data Protection Outdated? Surveillance and Society (12)1.

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