Tech companies are getting into neuroscience. Should we be worried?

The last few decades of neuroscientific research have produced a wide range of technologies capable of measuring human brain activity. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, implanted electrode systems, and electroencephalograms, or EEGs, among others, have helped researchers better understand how our brain responds to and controls our body’s interactions with the world around us.

Now some of these technologies – most notably EEG – have moved from the lab to the consumer market. The earliest of these consumer-focused neurotechnology devices, relatively simple systems that measure electrical signals passed through the skull and scalp, were marketed primarily as focus trainers or meditation aids for so-called “biohackers” looking to improve themselves through technology. However, the giants of the tech industry have recently taken notice and are exploring imaginative new ways to harness the inner electrical conversations in our brains.

In 2019, Meta, then known as Facebook, paid nearly $1 billion to purchase CTRL-Labs, a startup whose flagship product was a bracelet that detects neuromotor signals and allows the wearer to use a computer system with a number of forearm, hand, and finger movements. Last year, Snap, the parent company that manages Snapchat, spent an undisclosed sum to acquire NextMind, whose headset uses EEG technology so a user can “press a virtual button just by focusing on it.” Even Valve, the video game publisher that manages the massive Steam video game store, has teamed up with OpenBCI, the brain-computer interface developer, to bring brain-computer interfaces to virtual reality headsets.

The promise of these systems is to offer users a new, potentially more universally accessible, way to control computers—an alternative to standard interfaces like mice, handheld controllers, and touchscreens. What’s sure to appeal to the giants of the tech industry, though, is the treasure trove of real-time data these devices collect about a person’s neural activity. This latest revolution in neurotechnology could potentially bring a godsend to companies like Meta and Snap, which have built their business models around data-driven advertising. For the average consumer, however, it may present a new breed of privacy threat – one that regulators seem completely unprepared for.

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Companies like Meta and Snap make significant profits by collecting data about users’ web activity, using that data to identify highly specific target demographics for advertisers, and selling access to user information to third-party companies and researchers. A key tenet of this model is the idea that given enough information about individuals and their habits, developers can accurately predict how a given individual will respond to given advertisements. To do this, companies could use feedback surveys to determine whether an ad was successful or not, or track people’s online interactions with ads using metrics such as click-through rates or the time a person spends hovering their mouse over an ad move specific image or video .

However, tracking a person’s brain activity in real-time could theoretically provide a more reliable, accurate, and personalized representation of an ad’s effectiveness. In laboratory experiments, researchers have shown that certain EEG signals can be used to pinpoint when a person has seen a strong sensory stimulus or suddenly starts paying attention to something new. These signals, known as event-related potentials, can in turn be used to measure user interest and evaluate advertising effectiveness. For platforms like Snapchat and Meta, this could be a faster and more accurate way to get feedback on ad performance.

The practice, known as neuromarketing, of measuring neurological activity to gain insights into consumer behavior has been around since the early 1990s. Neuromarketing methods have so far only been used in controlled research settings, and it’s unclear how well, if at all, they will work in the wild. Still, recent moves by ad-supported social media platforms to develop brain-computer interface technologies suggest that neuromarketing may be on the verge of going mainstream. With companies like Meta and Snap already investing billions of dollars in virtual and augmented reality, it’s not hard to imagine them integrating EEG signal capture into the suite of user data already captured by head-mounted VR and AR devices . In fact, OpenBCI, which works with Valve, has already integrated EEG into its Galea VR headset.

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This latest revolution in neurotechnology could potentially bring a godsend to companies like Meta and Snap, which have built their business models around data-driven advertising.

Social media companies have long collected user data for the purpose of targeted advertising, but the prospect of including neurological data in this mediation represents new territory that is fraught with risk.

For one thing, it’s not clear what neuromarketing would mean for user experience. Neuromarketing metrics are created from measurements of basal electrochemical reactions in a person’s brain – they are less a true measure of whether someone is interested in a product and more the neurological equivalent of a knee-jerk reflex test. Algorithms that optimize advertising content based on neuromarketing metrics could potentially lead developers to shower users with the most obvious stimuli, turning EEG-integrated VR usage into a barrage of weaponized annoyance.

Large-scale neuromarketing could also have unforeseen negative privacy implications. If platform companies like Meta and Snap were to combine even crude measurements of a person’s brain activity with the already staggeringly large amounts of data they already store — including information about users’ location, buying habits, and online activities — they could give them a much more complete picture of their Users than the average person could be comfortable with. Although the capabilities of EEG and other neurotechnology lag far behind mind reading, they capture sensory responses over which users have little or no control and which could theoretically reveal alert responses to intrusive environmental stimuli that a user chose not to focus on.

Algorithms that link heightened neural responses to a world of distractions can falsely label random interactions as important or meaningful.

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Meanwhile, neural data privacy laws and regulations aren’t just behind the curve — they’re almost non-existent. Laws like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation give individuals some control and protection over their own digital footprint, and at least two states in the US have enacted biometric privacy laws that protect people from being unknowingly exposed to physiological measurements in public spaces. However, some experts have argued that neural data privacy is a special case that requires a new regulatory approach. Until now, tech companies looking to expand neuromarketing efforts and other neural data monetization schemes have largely been left to their own police.

That should be enough to give us all food for thought.

Michael Nolan is a science and technology writer. His publications span neurotechnology, privacy and new neuroscience research.