What is Neuralink?
Before we get to talking about mind pirates, it’s important to know a bit of context. If you don’t already know, which you definitely should, Neuralink is Elon Musk’s brain-machine interface company. They aim to cure cognitive disorders and eventually create an AI-human symbiosis. They recently unveiled their future N1 implant, a ‘neural lace‘ that is capable of reading and writing neuron signals in thousands of different neurons. The N1 is split into an internal system and an external ‘Link’ with the internal system requiring the ‘Link’ to function.
Our ‘not so’ amazing history of technological progression
Ever since Victorian times, technology has been progressing at what seems like a faster and faster rate. We have gone from horses to gas cars and now to very safe, soon to be self-driving electric vehicles. We have gone from laying down lines for telephones to wireless relays and soon to a network of internet satellites across the globe. The unfortunate thing is that the one area that hasn’t been able to keep pace is the government. Bureaucracy and general ignorance have meant that many innovations go unchecked until several serious incidents have been allowed to take place, and then when early action is taken it is almost always ill-informed and corporate-sponsored. This concept is something talked a lot about on this site in the context of brain uploading, and it’s no different for BMIs.
How we end up with ‘mind pirates’
‘Mind piracy’, or any other kind of malicious use of BMI technology, can be reached through several ways through several different organisations. First, and perhaps easiest of them all, is an ‘evil Neuralink’. If Elon Musk had any kind of agenda and an uncharacteristic lack of morals, he could conduct his company to allow for integrated manipulation in the neural lace. This is already something that Google does with search results and social media platforms like Facebook allow with ads. In some cases, this is arguably for the better and directs people away from extremist or conspiracy theory content but at the same time sets a dangerous precedent with tech companies as the judge, jury and executioner.
Secondly, we have ‘evil government’. As we highlighted in our privacy vs policing post, governmental agreements and organisations such as ‘Five Eyes’ and ‘GCHQ‘ are known to create profiles of pretty much anyone they can, even if that person has not displayed suspicious activity. A case is highly foreseeable where someone with a neural lace commits a crime or act of terrorism and some 60-year-old government official’s proposed solution is to log all neural activity. At this point, the government is literally stealing all of your brain activity, thus ‘mind pirates’.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most dangerously, is a criminal or criminal organisation. If there was some way to steal the ‘Link’, hack it, install custom software that bypasses Neuralink’s security – something we currently know little about as it likely hasn’t been custom created yet – then a criminal would have access to peoples minds. With this access, they could not only record activity but also write it, as is intended with normal neural lace function.
Just how bad can it be?
This question depends largely on software. If there is unbreakable pairing software between the Link and implant then individuals will be impacted but a larger spread would have to be done manually and thus be a lot harder. If the software is cracked or non-existent then any Link could be made to work with any implant. At this point, one would only need to swap out a good Link for a dodgy one to gain control. Criminal software could run in an undetectable ‘shadow mode’ until it could be activated at some tipping point.
What is guaranteed is that victims could have their minds controlled, memories altered, deleted or held to ransom and possibly major bodily functions shut down. Basically, anything that the brain does can be controlled with a sufficiently advanced neural lace. Is this going to happen with N1? No, it isn’t. N1 will have a relatively limited scope, so the level of control will be lower. However, from this, you can clearly see that the more advanced a system Neuralink can make results in a more catastrophic ‘worst-case scenario’.
Protecting yourself against mind pirates
There are a few actions that can be taken to avoid mind pirates other than Neuralink getting better security. The most drastic is of course to do nothing. Don’t get the implant and you won’t have an implant to be hacked. If this isn’t realistic for you, there are other actions to be taken.
- Scratch your Link: presumably, Links will be sold with a small number of customisation options, meaning they’ll mostly look the same. There may be a market for third-party Link customisation, but this obvious signalling shows criminals that they will have to use the same device for you, which won’t necessarily be hard for them. Instead, if you create a small imperfection such as a nick, scratch or scuff that won’t be seen unless you know to look for it, any swapped device will be instantly recognisable to you and you only.
- Route everything through Tor: with a standard connection or VPN, whoever your broadband or VPN provider is can see your traffic. This means any internet search, files shared or downloaded and video streamed is visible. However, with Tor, no middle-man provider can see your traffic, only you and the URLs you are on. In this case, even a hacked Link will have its traffic secured as nobody can see the origin of Tor traffic. Coupling this with a list of connections you can block or allow and you pretty much can only be seen by yourself. Any website you visit will have no idea who you are and any attempt to intercept your signals will just give a bunch of gobbledegook.
- Have a secret Link: this option is complicated and should only be undertaken with trusted professional guidance. The idea is that you would have your main Link, with standard software and permissions and a secret backup Link with administrative permissions and some kind of backup of key memories. In the case that your first Link is hacked and your brain turned to mush, your second Link, known only to you and one trusted professional, could wipe the fake memories, reprogram your neurons to function normally and, in the case of amnesia, play a short montage that tells you who you are, who you care for and any other secure information you would need to know. In fact, storing high-level passwords on a secondary Link could also be a secure method of general application.
- Hack the Link yourself: One of the best yet most difficult ways to protect yourself or your devices from hacking is to hack your device. Though it sounds absurd, this is the same idea of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ that inspired Mr Musk to create Neuralink. In this case, once a popular device like the Link and N1, N2, etc is hacked, every Link can be hacked until the software is updated. Hacking it yourself and installing your own software, even if that software is inferior, is actually more secure as prospective mind pirates would have to figure out how to hack your specific device to hack it. Just in terms of time economics, it’d be easier for said mind pirates to hack ten Links than your one, so they wouldn’t bother. This is the reason why software like Linux gets proportionally fewer successful attacks despite generally being less secure.
Overall, the key is to make your device as unique as possible without being obvious or, ideally, sacrificing function. A small but distinct scratch and a less common security layer could mean that you are both less at risk from fake or cracked Links and from having your own Link cracked. As always with any device though, it is important to always have the device be in a secure physical space. A zipped pocket is much safer than a tabletop and basic rules for keeping your phone safe apply to your hypothetical Link. It may be very hard to stop any attack from happening, but you can at least prevent that victim from being yourself.