What are the security implications of Elon Musk's Neuralink?

Wacky science fiction has come to life with Elon Musk’s latest idea: chips implanted in human heads that talk to smart devices. What could possibly go wrong?

virtual brain / digital mind / artificial intelligence / machine learning / neural network
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In every project he starts, Elon Musk looks to push the technology world in ways other people thought were only possible in science fiction. Take his car company, Tesla, which has made electric vehicle manufacturing a reality. The same is true for SpaceX, his rocket company that aims to bring space travel to the masses.

Then you have Neuralink, a conceptual product that operates on a smaller scale than Tesla or SpaceX but could have just as much of an impact. Musk believes that in the near future, a computer chip could be installed in a human brain and then communicate with other devices over a wireless frequency.

Before you run screaming away from your computer, read on about how Neuralink would theoretically work and think about the various security implications that must be overcome by developers before mind-controlled technology can be rolled out.

Use case for Neuralink

The Neuralink project is still very much in the conceptual stage, although Musk believes that technology won't be a blocker for long. With his system, a specially-trained sewing robot would actually drill a hole into a person's head and implant the Neuralink chip into their skull, connecting to the brain with a thousand small wires.

This type of advancement in brain-computer interfaces would mean that people could interact directly with devices using their thoughts instead of a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen. The average person might find this creepy or unnecessary, but for those afflicted with brain disorders or illnesses, adaptive technology like this could mean a chance at a more normal life.

For example, consider a stroke victim who has lost the ability to formulate words in a coherent pattern. In theory they could undergo the Neuralink surgery and then be able to speak via thoughts as they are transmitted over a wireless connection to a computer or smartphone.

Data storage in the cloud

Musk's business case for the Neuralink project is that it will launch with compatibility included for popular smartphone platforms, such as Apple iOS or Google Android. The question then becomes: what applications or websites will be authorized to use your Neuralink data?

This question of data sharing will surely complicate the cybersecurity situation for the Neuralink project. If a third-party application is granted access to back-end brain data, it may become tricky to track exactly what information is staying on your device and what information is being transmitted to the app's vendor.

Before long the conversation will shift to cybersecurity in the cloud. Once your data interfaces with online services and sites hosted by common providers, then it will be vulnerable to any common form of cyberattack currently in use by hackers. If you don’t have drop dead trust in your web host provider now, you better get that way before allowing Elon’s robot to implant anything in your head. 

Data breaches that you hear about on the news often take place at the cloud layer, with hackers finding ways to infiltrate virtualized servers and extract information from a back-end database. If one of these types of attacks were to hit the Neuralink project, it could represent a major step backwards for brain-based technology.

Vulnerabilities in wireless technology

Whenever a new piece of technology hits the market, whether it's software or hardware, hackers see it as an opportunity for destruction. They will seek out ways to exploit vulnerabilities in the product in hopes of either making money from it or just causing frustration for the company behind it.

The same scenario should be expected for Elon Musk and Neuralink. The potential for brain-controlled technology is incredibly vast but it relies on existing forms of wireless communication. All signs point to Neuralink using Bluetooth to interface between the implanted chip and outside devices, just like wireless keyboards and headphones.

In general, Bluetooth is considered to be a secure protocol because of its pairing system and short-range receivers. However, there are known trojan viruses that can be spread via Bluetooth and used to steal data from Android devices. This suggests a potential risk with Neuralink being susceptible to malware that could be spread through Bluetooth.

It's also important to keep in mind that Bluetooth-capable devices will transmit a signal to any receiver they can find in the area. Though virtual private network (VPN) technology has proven effective as a privacy tool that encrypts traditional internet connections, the Neuralink is uncharted territory. With it, wireless transmissions could theoretically be captured to track your geographical movements during the day. Some cybersecurity experts are concerned with how companies or governments would use brain interface technology for surveillance programs.

Regulation on the horizon

Every computerized device on the market today, from laptops to tablets to smartphones, has to pass through a regulation process with various government agencies to ensure it is safe to use before it can be sold to the general public. The same will be true for the Neuralink brain chip, and in fact the regulatory checks are expected to be more in depth than for a traditional device.

Because of the fact that a Neuralink installation will require a form of medical surgery, Musk's project will need approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before it can begin trials of the implants. If medical experts see any risk with the robotic phase of the surgery, then it could put the entire project on hold.

In addition, governments around the globe will likely want to run independent studies to determine the impact of having wireless signals transmitted to and from a person's brain. Part of this analysis will pull in cybersecurity experts to gauge the potential flaws in the Neuralink software framework.

The bottom line

A lot of futuristic movies, books, and TV shows theorize about a future where you can interact with technology through hologram screens. Inventor and business leader Elon Musk thinks he can take things one major step further with his Neuralink project, which will attempt to link the human brain with electronic devices. Like with any new piece of technology, Neuralink will surely come up against security threats, with hackers looking for ways to compromise the technology.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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