Reminding us once again that there is no such thing as security, a group of (anti?) security researchers are making the case that even the brain can be hacked to reveal personal data such as PIN numbers, credit card numbers and places of residence using a $300 brainwave headset.
It's a scary day when even your super safe thoughts can be cracked. In a paper titled "On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks with Brain Computer Interfaces, researchers from Oxford, UC Berkeley and the University of Geneva outline their findings on using the Emotiv brainwave headset to steer subjects' thoughts towards the correct answer.
How does it work? According to one researcher Mario Frank (via Wired phone interview), the experiment checked for spikes in P300 waves — pulses that are critical to the processing of decision making. As explained by Frank to Wired's Geeta Dayal:
The P300 "occurs approximately 300 milliseconds after an event happens," said Frank, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley, in a phone interview with Wired. "The potential arises if you already prime your thoughts toward a particular event.... An attacker could try to prime the thoughts of the victim towards a particular secret that a victim has in mind. For instance, if you know the face of some person, you might be able to observe a brainwave pattern that is evidence of the user thinking about the face."
Great, but what if you're an expert liar or have been trained by top secret military or ninja societies to mask your thoughts with zen-like wizardry? How accurate were the findings?
"The correct answer was found by the first guess in 20% of the cases for the experiment with the PIN, the debit cards, people, and the ATM machine," write the researchers. "The location was exactly guessed for 30% of users, month of birth for almost 60% and the bank based on the ATM machines for almost 30%."
Those figures aren't high enough to be frightening just yet, so don't start panicking. As the first study of its kind to probe to using EEG headsets to mine brainwaves for relevant data, it could be the case that using a more powerful headset could lead to more brain leakage. Anybody else suddenly reminded of the probe used on Princess Leia in Star Wars? No? Just me? Fine.