Your Brain Could Be Target for Hackers

A team of scientists has shown that it's possible to steal passwords and other personal information from your brain. The even scarier thing is it used off-the-shelf gaming technology that tracks brain activity to prove the point.

By Antone Gonsalves
Tue, September 04, 2012

CSO — Using off-the-shelf gaming technology that tracks brain activity, a team of scientists has shown that it's possible to steal passwords and other personal information.

Researchers from the University of Oxford, University of Geneva and the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated the possibility of brain hacking using software built to work with Emotiv Systems' $299 EPOC neuro-headset.

Developers build software today that responds to signals emitted over Bluetooth from EPOC and other so-called brain computer interfaces (BCI), such as MindWave from NeuroSky. Of course, if software developers can build apps for such devices, so can criminals.

"The security risks involved in using consumer-grade BCI devices have never been studied and the impact of malicious software with access to the device is unexplored," the researchers said in a paper presented in July at the USENIX computer conference. "We take a rst step in studying the security implications of such devices and demonstrate that this upcoming technology could be turned against users to reveal their private and secret information."

The researchers found that the software they built to read signals from EPOC significantly improved the chances of guessing personal identification numbers (PINs), the general area participants in the experiment lived, people they knew, their month of birth, and the name of their bank.

[See also:A'A Hackers shift to outflanking the first line of defense]

The Emotiv device, used in gaming and as a hands-free keyboard, uses sensors to record electrical activity along the scalp. Voltage in the brain spikes when people see something they recognize, so tracking the fluctuation makes it possible to gather information about people by showing them series of images.

The researchers conducted their experiments on 28 computer science students. In the PIN experiment, the subjects chose a four-digit number and then watched as the numbers zero to nine were flashed on a computer screen 10 times for each digit. While the images flashed before the subjects, the researchers tracked brain activity through signals from the EPOC neuro-headset.

The same form of repetitive showing of images was used in the other experiments, such as a series of bankcards to determine a subject's bank or images of people to find the one they knew.

In general, the researchers' chance of guessing correctly increased to between 20% and 30%, up from 10% without the brain tracking. The exception was in figuring out people's month of birth. The rate of guessing correctly increased to as much as 60%.

Nevertheless, the overall reliability was not high enough for an attack targeted at a few individuals. "The attack works, but not in a reliable way," Mario Frank, a UC Berkeley researcher in the study, said on Friday. "With the equipment that we used, it's not possible to be sure that you found the true answer."

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