August - September, 2016

Brains May be Subject to Hackers

Recent research at the University of Washington found that Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) carry a risk for user privacy and security.  The BCI platforms can extract private information from the user by recording the user’s unintentional brain reactions to images.  BCI platforms are widely used in medical, gaming, entertainment and marketing industries; however, researchers warn there are no standards or guarantees in the industries to protect the security and privacy of individual users.  Howard Chizeck, an electrical engineer and co-author of the research study, “App Stores for the Brain: Privacy & Security in Brain-Computer Interfaces,” warns that a security framework must soon be developed, and “[t]here’s actually very little time … [i]f we don’t address this quickly, it’ll be too late.”

BCI platforms are “communication system[s] between the brain and the external environment.” The system translates “electrophysiological signals, reflecting activity of [the] central nervous system, into a user’s intended messages that act on the external world.” BCIs are currently classified into invasive [e.g., electrodes surgically implanted into the brain], moderately invasive [e.g., implanted inside the skull], and non-invasive systems [e.g., signals are recorded from the scalp].  “Most non-invasive BCIs are based on electroencephalography {EEG},” the signals of which “are easily measurable.”

Hackers can use subliminal messages and imagery inserted into apps and games and then record the user’s brain responses.  Tamara Bonaci, a co-author of the research study, stated that, “[i]t’s been known in neuroscience for a while now that if a person has a strong emotional response to one of the presented stimuli, then on average 300 milliseconds after they saw a stimulus there is going to be a positive peak hidden within the EEG signal.” By presenting different images to the user, Ms. Bonaci said, the emotional responses can be tracked with a 72% to 84% accuracy rate.

At the 2012 USENIX Security Symposium researchers introduced an example of “brain spyware,” an app that could extract EEG neural signals from a person to collect information such as credit card PINs, birth-dates, and addresses.  Consumer-grade systems can be purchased for under $300.00.  The authors of the study suggest that additional information relating to a user’s memories, prejudices and beliefs, could also be extracted and recorded.

The researchers noted that the BCI could be used by law enforcement to gather data in support of investigations, or used as a “remote lie detector.” The authors cited a 2011 article in the Stanford Law Review, wherein the author, N. Farahany, presented questions and examples about the interplay between such neural engineering systems and an individual’s Fifth Amendment protection from compelled self-incrimination; the “examples strongly indicate the traditional border between testimonial and physical evidence becomes blurry …”

“Currently, there does not seem to exist a way to resist these attacks.” The authors suggested that an interdisciplinary effort – between neural engineers, ethicists, legal, and security experts -- be started to answer the questions raised through use of the technology.  The authors also suggested that a “BCI Anonymizer” – to pre-process neural signals before they can be transmitted – be used.

Sources:  Stacy Liberatore, “Hackers could get inside your BRAIN: Experts warn of growing threat from monitoring and controlling neural signals,”, August 2, 2016:  http://www.daily de-BRAIN-Experts-warn-growing-threat-monitoring-controlling-neural-signals.html; Tamara Bonaci, Ryan Calo, and Howard Jay Chizeck, “App Stores for the Brain: Privacy & Security in Brain-Computer Interfaces,” 2014 research paper: lo_Chizeck_Ethics_2014.pdf

Electronic Tattoo Senses Blood-Alcohol Level

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal described research into a temporary, electronic and removable tattoo that can determine a blood-alcohol level from the wearer’s sweat.  The device, developed by researchers at the Center for Wearable Sensors at the University of California, San Diego, contains an alcohol-sensor and flexible electronics board that sends the data via Bluetooth to either a smartphone or car computer.  The research follows efforts to develop a wearable, continuously-monitoring device.  The UCSD researchers are working to develop a small, day-long version of their tattoo.  The research abstract states that the “skin-worn alcohol monitoring platform integrates an iontophoretic-biosensing temporary tattoo system along with flexible wireless electronics.”

Sources:  Daniel Akst, “A Tattoo That Knows When You’re Drunk,”, August 11, 2016:  Abstract of copy-righted paper:

Judicial Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Researchers in the Sociology Department of Harvard University examined how judges think about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and how judges work to address the problem at arraignments, plea hearings, jury selection, and sentencing.  Interviews were conducted with 59 state judges -- of varied racial, gender, and professional backgrounds [42 White, 10 Black, 7 other; 38 male, 21 female; 40 Democrat, 19 Republican] -- all of whom were appointed to their judgeships from the Northeast of the United States.  The findings were encapsulated or summarized in the form of a fictional “Northeast State.”  The researchers found “that each judge’s strategies with respect to racial disparities are determined by the situational context of each stage of trial and may not mitigate the factors that the judge believes to be the cause of racial disparities in the system more broadly.”

Traditionally, the authors noted, researchers have defined two explanations for racial disparities in the criminal justice system: disparate impact and differential treatment.  The disparate impact explanation holds that Blacks and Latinos are brought into the criminal justice system in higher proportions than Whites either due to a higher rate of offending (resulting from differences in economic resources or cultural mores), or because “they are disproportionately susceptible to the sanctions of facially neutral laws and practices.” The differential treatment explanation holds that the racial disparities stem from either overt or implicit discriminatory treatment by those enforcing the laws, including police, prosecutors, probations agents and judges.

Prior studies show that Blacks and Latinos are treated more punitively than Whites at the pre-trial stages and, by a “slim majority of the studies,” in sentencing.  The authors noted that judges often must act with limited biographical information about a defendant and may resort to “patterned responses” in a given case.  Judges rely upon law enforcement, prosecutors and defense lawyers to provide information needed for decision-making; it is a collective process, and “decision-making in the courts is a complex process in which the intersubjectivity of social action, the probabilistic nature of causal relationships, and considerations of the time order of decision-making complicate straight-forward, variable-centered interpretations of decision-making.” [Internal citation omitted for clarity].

Almost all of the judges interviewed acknowledged being aware of, and being concerned about, studies showing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  Most of the judges (76%)
explained the disparities with a combination of the disparate impact and differential treatment explanations; 24% thought the racial disparities were due to disparate impact alone.

Judicial strategies for dealing with racial disparities were found to be either noninterventionist (for example, deferring to prosecutors and defenders) or interventionist (for example, where a judge questions the possible disparate treatment of defendants by others, as well as the disparate impact of the judge’s own decision-making).  The researchers found the judges employed different strategies, either noninterventionist or interventionist, at the different stages of the criminal process.  For example, at the arraignment stage, 36 judges employed noninterventionist and 12 employed interventionist strategies; at the plea-hearing stage, 41 employed noninterventionist and 7 employed interventionist strategies; at jury selection, 35 employed noninterventionist and 13 interventionist strategies; and at sentencing, 41 employed noninterventionist and 7 interventionist strategies.

“At the sentencing stage, racial disparities that have emerged at earlier stages of criminal justice processing are already locked in.”  As a result, most judges “see little leeway in righting discriminatory decisions made at earlier stages.”  The authors concluded that “the noninterventionist decision-making of most judges in our sample at each stage of trial … helps to explain the persistence of racial disparities in the criminal justice system despite well-intentioned judging.”

Sources:  Matthew Clair and Alix S. Winter, “How Judges Think About Racial Disparities: Situational Decision-Making in the Criminal Justice System,” Criminology, May, 2016:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor