Written by Joanne Sacco

How hackers can wipe your memory and steal your thoughts

We’ve all been there. You’ve spent hours working on a document and suddenly, somehow all your work is gone and you’re not sure how to get it back. A misnamed file. A USB stick that suddenly stopped working. Or a malicious virus that wiped your files.

Once you’ve gone through the panic and anger phases and realise it’s gone, you resign yourself to the fact that you really didn’t lose anything of real value except your time. It’s not a total tragedy. At least you have your health.

But what if someone could hack your health? Or your brain. Or your memories.

Hang on, is that even possible?

The bad news is yes, it is technically possible. The good news is, probably not just yet.

Where man meets machine

The idea that your mind could be accessed by a hacker or corrupted by some kind of virus is frightening. We rightly believe that our thoughts and memories are ours and ours alone.
But the path of technological development is leading us to a place where in the near future there is a very real possibility that hackers could access people’s minds and steal information, change our memories, or wipe them entirely.
Despite sounding pretty menacing, this technology is really just a natural extension of the advances that have occurred in computing over the last few decades. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are the logical next step after the smartphone, which evolved from the laptop, desktop, and mainframe computers before it.
Most people don’t know it but brain-computer interfaces already exist, and have for almost twenty years.
Research into brain-computer interfaces began in the 1990’s with the goal of helping the physically disabled walk, talk, and control wheelchairs and computers. Although it has not yet been widely commercialised, this work has been successful and there are people today that are able to control a wheelchair using their thoughts only. Medical professionals also use implanted brain chips to help treat a range of conditions and diseases such as Parkinson’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder, tremors, and major depression.
This research is now evolving to meet the potential wider uses of this technology, where people could communicate with others by thought or vastly improve their memory. It now seems likely that within five years the technology will have advanced sufficiently to have the capability to record the brain signals responsible for creating memories, leading to memory boosting implants that can improve memory storage and recall.
But do these types of benefits from merging human and machine capabilities outweigh the risks?
On the plus side, armed with a memory-boosting implanted brain chip, you may be able to blow the competition away in your favourite TV quiz show. But on the other hand, is the cash and prizes you’d win be worth risking having your mind hacked and all your memories stolen? Tough call, some of those prizes do look pretty great…..

Securing your memories

A group of cybersecurity experts from the anti-virus company Kaspersky has recently teamed up with researchers from Oxford University to look into the potential vulnerabilities of brain computer interfaces and medical implants.
This latest generation of medical implants contain management software that can be accessed by patients and clinicians that contain potential vulnerabilities. BCI and brain chip designs also need to allow software backdoors so clinicians can change settings in an emergency, and these backdoors can become an avenue for attack. In future this could lead to the ability to stop a pacemaker from working properly or altering or erasing someone’s memories.
So it’s clear we need to start addressing these concerns now as the brain implants that are coming in the near future could become a prime target for hackers. The technology that exists today becomes the basis for what will exist in the future. Getting this right is essential to ensure that we can always hold on to our dearest memories.
Is your job in danger of being replaced by robots? Find out here.

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