Science and Technology

Why your thoughts may not be private for much longer

We need to rethink our human rights for the wearable tech of tomorrow, according to neurotechnology ethics expert Prof Nita Farahany.

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Alex Hughes

Published: May 13, 2023 at 11:00 am

Through new tech, we’re now able to track our steps, our heart rate and even our vascular age. But as future technology advances, there is a new metric to access – our brain waves.

New ‘brain sensors’ promise much, but as Nita Farahany – an author and professor specialising in the ethics of emerging technologies – explains, we may need to readdress our basic human rights to prepare for them.

Are there really now devices that can access our brain waves?

Yes, but it’s a question of both scale and precision. There are millions of consumer brain wearables sold worldwide. These are in the form of headbands or sensors that can be embedded into a hard hat or a baseball cap to track brain activity. The algorithm’s interpreting that activity, but right now they’re somewhat limited in what they can do. They can decode someone’s attention, engagement, if their mind is wandering, and basic emotions like stress, happiness or sadness.

Major tech companies are investing in integrating brain sensors in the same way we see heart rate monitors in watches and rings, integrating brain sensors into everyday devices like earbuds, headphones or even wearable tattoos.

Some companies have announced that they plan to launch a neural interface as a way to interact with the rest of our technology in augmented and virtual reality by 2025.

What is it that these brain scans are actually measuring?

These are not mind-reading devices, they can’t understand our detailed thoughts. One common technology used is electroencephalography (EEG), which picks up electrical activity in your brain as you’re thinking or experiencing anything.

Neurones are firing in your brain in a way that sends characteristic patterns, giving off tiny electrical discharges that can be picked up by the EEG. Through powerful algorithms, these patterns are decoded. From this, we can measure attention, mind-wandering, and basic feelings and emotions.

Pair that with a screen someone is looking at, and we can track environmental data, too. Flash up political candidates from different parties on my screen while I have brain sensors attached and you could classify my responses to any particular party.

Researchers have also tried subliminally embedding, in a gaming environment, PIN numbers or addresses to see if recognition of that information could also be reliably detected from brainwave data.


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