Hackers backdoor the human brain, successfully extract sensitive data
With a chilling hint of the not-so-distant future, researchers at the Usenix Security conference have demonstrated a zero-day vulnerability in your brain. Using a commercial off-the-shelf brain-computer interface, the researchers have shown that it’s possible to hack your brain, forcing you to reveal information that you’d rather keep secret.
As we’ve covered in the past, a brain-computer interface is a two-part device: There’s the hardware — which is usually a headset (an EEG; an electroencephalograph) with sensors that rest on your scalp — and software, which processes your brain activity and tries to work out what you’re trying to do (turn left, double click, open box, etc.)
BCIs are generally used in a medical setting with very expensive equipment, but in the last few years cheaper, commercial offerings have emerged. For $200-300, you can buy an Emotiv (pictured above) or Neurosky BCI, go through a short training process, and begin mind controlling your computer.
Both of these commercial BCIs have an API — an interface that allows developers to use the BCI’s output in their own programs. In this case, the security researchers — from the Universities of Oxford and Geneva, and the University of California, Berkeley — created a custom program that was specially designed with the sole purpose of finding out sensitive data, such as the location of your home, your debit card PIN, which bank you use, and your date of birth. The researchers tried out their program on 28 participants (who were cooperative and didn’t know that they were being brain-hacked), and in general the experiments had a 10 to 40% chance of success of obtaining useful information (pictured above).
To extract this information, the researchers rely on what’s known as the P300 response — a very specific brainwave pattern (pictured right) that occurs when you recognize something that is meaningful (a person’s face), or when you recognize something that fits your current task (a hammer in the shed). The researchers basically designed a program that flashes up pictures of maps, banks, and card PINs, and makes a note every time your brain experiences a P300. Afterwards, it’s easy to pore through the data and work out — with fairly good accuracy — where a person banks, where they live, and so on.
In a real-world scenario, the researchers foresee a game that is specially tailored by hackers to extract sensitive information from your brain — or perhaps an attack vector that also uses social engineering to lull you into a false sense of security. It’s harder to extract data from someone who knows they’re being attacked — as interrogators and torturers well know.
Moving forward, this brain hack can only improve in efficacy as BCIs become cheaper, more accurate, and thus more extensively used. Really, your only defense is to not think about the topic — but if you’re proactively on the defensive, then the hacker has already messed up. The only viable solution that I can think of is to ensure that you don’t use your brain-computer interface with shady software, brain malware — but then again, in a science-fictional future, isn’t it almost guaranteed that the government would mandate the inclusion of brain-hacking software in the operating system itself?
Research paper: On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks with Brain-Computer Interfaces
The first mind-controlled robot surrogate
The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) reads his thoughts, a computer translates those thoughts into commands, and then those commands are sent across the internet to the robot in France. The system requires training: On its own, an fMRI can simply see the real-time blood flow in your brain (pictured below right). Training teaches the system that a particular “thought” (blood flow pattern) equates to a certain command. In this case, when Shapira thinks about moving forward or backward, the robot moves forward or backward; when Shapira thinks about moving one of his hands, the robot surrogate turns in that direction.
To complete the loop, the robot has a camera on its head, with the image being displayed in front of Shapira. Speaking to New Scientist, it sounds like Shapira really became one with the robot: “It was mind-blowing. I really felt like I was there, moving around,” he says. “At one point the connection failed. One of the researchers picked the robot up to see what the problem was and I was like, ‘Oi, put me down!’”
This isn’t particularly surprising, though: We humans are very, very good at integrating other objects into our mental model of ourselves (the rubber hand trick; video below), or filling other vessels with our persona (role-playing games, digital avatars in virtual worlds).
This area of research — robot surrogates — is of particular interest for two reasons: a) The military would love to send robots into battle, rather than soldiers, and b) Paralyzed, locked-in, and vegetative people could use robots to interact with the world, effectively replacing their damaged body with a shiny new robot. In recent years, lots of research has shown that many of these people still have perfectly functional brains — it’s just a matter of connecting them up to a working physical body.
Both the militaristic and medicinal applications will require a lot more research, though. In this case, an fMRI scanner (a huge and expensive piece of equipment) is used because it’s more accurate than an EEG — but moving forward, improved software might allow the use of an EEG, or perhaps head-mounted fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) could be used. On the robotics side of the equation, a lot of work is being done to create robots are remarkably human-like, such as Boston Dynamics’ Petman, Kawada Industries’ HRP-4, and Meka Robotics’ anime head (videos embedded below).
Who knows, in a few years, you might be able to slip a brain-computer interface over your head (or perhaps your Google Glass will have a built-in BCI?), lean back, and control a robot avatar that could be anywhere in the world — or galaxy. With enough sensory feedback (if something touches the robot, you should feel it too), you could travel the world every night after work — or, my personal favorite, engage in robot vs. robot deathmatches.
For more information about robotics see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/robotics
For more information about synthetic telepathy see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/synthetic%20telepathy
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