Sciency Words: Brainjacking

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

BRAINJACKING

This is the kind of word you’d expect to find in one of those young adult Sci-Fi dystopia novels. Instead, I first encountered the term in a recent issue of Scientific American.

The word brainjacking is formed by analogy with hijacking. One possible definition involves a parasitic organism taking control of a host’s brain, perhaps altering the host’s brain chemistry in some way. A well known example is the zombie ant phenomenon, which is caused by a parasitic fungus.

But Scientific American was actually talking about humans, not ants—humans with medical implants in their brains, implants which may be vulnerable to hacking. Deep brain stimulation (D.B.S.) systems are sort of like pacemakers for the brain, and they’ve proven to be effective at controlling the symptoms of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s.

According to the abstract for this paper from World Neurosurgery, electronic brainjacking could come in two forms:

  • Blind attacks, which require no patient specific knowledge. Hackers could incapacitate or kill patients, or they could steal data from D.B.S. devices.
  • Targeted attacks, which do require some knowledge about the patient and how, specifically, the D.B.S. system is being used. Hackers could attempt to induce pain, control motor functions, enhance or repress emotions, or manipulate the brain’s rewards system.

Apparently these D.B.S. devices do not have a lot of security features built in, and what’s more they’re deliberately designed to be accessed and programmed wirelessly. That might at first seem like a serious design flaw, but it’s actually a necessary feature. In case of an emergency, E.M.S. personnel may need quick and easy access to your device.

Based on what I’ve read about brainjacking, there are zero documented cases of hackers actually attempting to do this… yet. But it’s clearly something both neuroscientists and cyber-security experts are worrying about.

And if there ever is a future where brain implants become ubiquitous, for both medical and non-medical purposes, then brainjacking may be a word everyone needs to know.

4 Responses to Sciency Words: Brainjacking

  1. It seems like every industry that introduces programmable devices has to re-learn the painful lessons about security that IT learned long ago. Elon Musk talked about regulating AI. I think a much more beneficial move would be to regulate any life safety systems (cars, implants, etc) or systems of public concern (voting), with audits to ensure they’re incorporating at least reasonable security in their products.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      That sounds like a good idea to me. Part of the problem here is that these devices apparently need to be fairly easy to access in case of a medical emergency, but that leaves them very vulnerable to hackers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. At the moment I’d be more concerned about “carjacking” (yes I coined the term, haha). With all the AI built into automobiles now, the potential for hacking mischief seems very high.

    Liked by 1 person

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