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Free your mind - shouldn't information privacy at least be in your head?

Last week I came across Clive Thompson’s article on Why the Next Civil Rights Battle Will Be Over the Mind. The technology in question is called “Hyper Sonic Sound” and the actual implementation made by American Technology. Let’s examine the product and the

The most obvious application for this type of technology is marketing. Marketeers’ hope to tailor a message for the smallest possible audience. This focused targeting creates less waste with regards to time and effort. What’s better than a target of one. Let’s start with the sales side, where Hyper Sonic Sound is “good”.

Suppose a gentleman walking down the street wearing an Armani shirt. If the shirt is new and this year’s fashion, the man hears a whisper suggesting the latest collection at the Armani store one block over. If the shirt is crisp, but from last year’s collection, there’s a sudden inspiration to check out the huge sale at the designer outlet. Lastly, the guy’s retro appearance would prompt a hint of the rare finds at the vintage clothing store he’s passing at that moment.

Businesses would kill for this sort of selection and segmentation. The man’s already shown an affinity for the product. Given the right impetus, there’s a very real possibility he will move on whatever option he hears.

From a security standpoint, there’s not much to the whispers. When do the whispers become more? How about the people who already hear voices? Would this simply add an additional “friend”? What if it’s not a whisper, but a scream during Tiger Woods’ back swing or an Olympic Gymnast’s dismount. You could probably destabilize Las Vegas, or at least clean up at the track. This type of technology could amount to criminal actions, even possibly terrorism with the right target.

The more interesting questions surround privacy. Hyper Sonic Sound is the first of the technologies actually commercialized in Mr. Thompson’s article. The cranium is the one place people express anything. You hash out what you’re going to say or develop a negotiation strategy in the privacy of your own mind. Think of the implications of influencing poker (“Don’t bluff”), chess (“Watch out for the Knight”), or even football (“Run it”) and baseball (“Don’t hang the curve ball”). These are all subliminal messages, and psychologists have been reviewing their effectiveness for years in the audio/music business with such classics as Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and The Beatles’ Helter Skelter through to the 1984 Congressional Hearings and Judas Priest. The Judas Priest ruling actually narrowed the scope on First Amendment protections to exclude subliminal messaging.

Let’s delve into the terrifying parts beginning with the fMRI imaging. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging tracks the transfer of iron due increased blood flow. What they’ve found is when someone’s “thinking”, measurable blood flows into that part of the brain. Currently, the resolution of the imaging limits the precise location of the blood flow. Generally though, laypeople know left-brained (analytical) vs. right-brained (creative). This carries over past the granularity of the current scanners, where visual, auditory, and cognitive capabilities are localized into brain areas.

Detectives have known for years what clues to look for when someone’s fabricating a story: story changes, hesitation, too much detail. Polygraphy catches some of the additional subtleties: breathing, blood pressure, heart, and perspiration rates. The fMRI should be the ultimate in lie detection. Your mind won’t fire from multiple locations simultaneously: that’s called a seizure, and telling the truth at that point would not be your biggest concern. When someone’s filling in story details, the equivalent of their creative right brain fires, and the fMRI picks it up.

People willingly subjecting themselves to such testing must be ready for the consequences. This is the same catch-22 involved with current polygraphs. Sure they are exonerating themselves this instance. However, the next time a question arises and they aren’t willing to subject themselves to the same scrutiny, they will be crucified in the court of public opinion. They must have something to hide, or else they would take another test.

Mr. Thompson perfectly sums up the privacy and governmental control quandary.

Let’s say you’ve been assaulted and you want to take propranolol to delete the memory. The state needs that memory to prosecute the assailant. Can it prevent you from taking the drug? “To a certain extent, memories are societal properties,” says Adam Kolber, a visiting professor at Princeton. “Society has always made claims on your memory, such as subpoenaing you.”

Where is the line drawn? Although eroding, the courts recognize marital and attorney/client privilege. Personally, I find the last bastion of privacy the skull. Do you want people taking thoughts out of your head? Besides, memories are never perfect, and they’re intertwined with personal feelings and biases. Although you may be a credible, upstanding member of society, what if you harbor deep seeded racism. On the stand, you would repress those feelings to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”; there is no option of halting synapses. I guess there is a choice, but do we really want to have to flatline to maintain privacy?

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