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Privacy fears over brain scans

The use of brain scanners must be regulated in order to prevent threats to civil liberties, a legal expert has warned.

Researchers have concerns that brain scans - used in some US death row trials - could be used by police to determine whether a suspect is lying, or has planned a crime they have yet to commit.

The University’s Dr Burkhard Schafer told a conference in Glasgow that if left unregulated, scanners could threaten people’s privacy.

They could, for instance be used by employers to test the honesty of an individual's CV or by commercial companies to analyse the subconscious preferences of their consumers.

Mind-reading technology

Experts from around the world, including neuroscientists, policymakers and judges, discussed whether cutting-edge brain imaging could be exploited to read people’s thoughts and preferences.

Researchers also warned that scans could reveal undiagnosed brain conditions in some individuals, causing unnecessary anxiety to them and their families, and that repeated scanning might even carry health risks.

At present there are no guidelines on how brain scanning information should be used or what protections should be in place to ensure the rights of vulnerable people.

The two-day event was part of a programme hosted and funded by the Institute for Advanced Studies

Brain imaging could well become the next frontier in the privacy wars. The promise to read a person’s mind is beguiling, and some applications will be greatly beneficial. But we need to ensure that the law protects what is the innermost core of our privacy from unwarranted intrusion.”

Dr Burkhard SchaferCo-director of SCRIPT Centre for Research in Intellectual Property and Technology at the University

Professor Joanna Wardlaw, Professor of Applied Neuroimaging at the University, said: “Brain imaging has emerged at astounding speed in the last decade and it is an extremely powerful method of finding out about how the brain works. But currently, once outside the medical or scientific arena, the use of imaging is completely unregulated.

“Is it right that someone should be convicted of a serious crime, or let off, on the basis of evidence coming from brain imaging? We don’t think the technology is ready for that yet, but we need an open and frank discussion to decide where we go next.”

The public are also invited to take part in a survey about the ethics of brain imaging.