Tech Sets Sights on the Last Bastion of Privacy — Your Brain

Virtuous and educated people must be able to make their own wise choices about how, why, and when they use what technology.

Cover of The Battle for Your Brain by Nita Farahany
Cover of The Battle for Your Brain by Nita Farahany (photo: Macmillan Publishers / Shutterstock)

Imagine that you have a good year at work, and your supervisor schedules a meeting to discuss a raise. Your boss makes the offer and asks you to take a day to think about it. You like the offer, but, after sleeping on it, you think you should try asking for more. When you meet with your boss again, you ask for more, but your boss holds firm.

Why might your boss do this, even if she knows that the company can afford more? Because your boss knew that you liked the initial offer. How did your boss know that? Because you were wearing the company-issued and required earbuds during the remote meeting as you always do at work, and those earbuds are equipped with neurotechnology that tracks your brain activity. Your boss had access to that data and knew that you were excited about the offer and were in a good mood the rest of the day.

This particular story might be fiction, but tracking and recording brain activity using neurotechnology is not — companies, salespeople, museums, police, schools and governments are already monitoring the brain activity of employees at work, customers smelling different perfumes, viewers of artwork, suspects being questioned, students learning, and citizens being shown propaganda. The age of neurotechnology is already here, and Nita Farahany, in her recent book The Battle for Your Brain, presents the story about the employee and the raise to get us thinking about what the very near future could look like.

Our technology, both the devices themselves as well as the apps and websites we use, keep track of what we do, our physical location, what we click on, how long we look at something, and then sell that information to other companies so they can target us with advertisements. This is not news (at least, it shouldn’t be). But what if those companies had access to your thoughts? 

Farahany writes, “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we are rapidly heading toward a world of brain transparency, in which scientists, doctors, governments, and companies may peer into our brains and minds at will.” If information about what we do, what we say, and where we go (physically and virtually) is worth so much to companies, imagine how much our brain data is worth, and how far people will go to get it.

Collections of raw brain data already exist, and it is not uncommon for companies to require their employees to wear some kind of tracking technology, all in the name of efficiency and productivity (which are the gods served by businesses in the Technopoly). Farahany writes:

Whether worn on our scalps or wrists, or deeply embedded in our brains, all these devices share one striking commonality. Each records our raw neural activity — which can be saved, aggregated, and mined for much more than what consumers are using it for. The black box of our brains has been opened.

Some of the most vulnerable are the poor who are required to wear this technology in order to keep their job. The choice to look for another job may not be possible for them when they are living paycheck to paycheck or trying to support a family.

The main point of Farahany’s book, though, is not to scare us or warn of the impending Armageddon. Instead, she argues that it is not too late to develop ethical guidelines for the use of neurotechnology and enshrine what she calls the “right to cognitive liberty,” which could be threatened if neurotechnology is allowed to grow unimpeded and is embraced without question as necessity and progress (another precept of the Technopoly: that technological innovation is intrinsically good and the highest form of human achievement). 

Farahany writes, “While transformation has already started, a public dialogue has not yet begun. If we want to balance our cognitive liberty with societal interests, it’s time for everyone to join the conversation.”

The ethics that guide our decisions about this technology won’t develop on their own; they will require work. The technology seems to be developing on its own, and it will require work to slow it down.

But there will never be enough laws or oversight to prevent people from taking advantage of each other. There is no substitute for the prudence and temperance of the individual. Virtuous and educated people must be able to make their own wise choices about how, why, and when they use what technology. No one can be forced to be free, but it is necessary for individuals to be educated about these things and those in positions of power to have conversations and develop guidelines around the use of this technology.