The Brain: Who Should Read Your Mind?

Brain scanners are becoming more powerful all the time--and privacy experts are worried

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Illustration for TIME by Jonathon Rosen

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The courts may soon be forced to address these questions. Columbia University psychiatry professor Paul Appelbaum points out that current criminal law allows government agencies to invade bodily privacy when, for example, it lets police draw blood after a suspected drunk driving accident. But not always. Americans, for example, can't currently be compelled to give a DNA sample. Nor can they be forced to submit to an MRI or have electrodes fixed to their skulls without consent or a court order, says Hank Greely, a Stanford law professor. But it's conceivable that prosecutors might become much more aggressive in demanding brain scans--"like a search warrant for the brain," he suggests. "There's little precedent, and we're moving into new and scary territory."

The technology also has national-security implications. At a Neuroethics Society-- sponsored symposium at Tufts University last September, ethicists and policymakers debated the potential benefits and threats to individual liberty of brain imaging and stimulation during intelligence gathering, which may be just around the corner. Cephos Corp., a brain-imaging firm based in Pepperell, Mass., hopes to have a lie-detection scan with 90% accuracy ready for use by late 2007, according to CEO Steven Laken, who says the U.S. intelligence community is watching closely. "If someone says, 'I know where bin Laden is,'" Laken asserts, "the U.S. government could hire us to verify the intelligence."

Intelligence agencies aren't the only customers for such services. A growing number of firms now offer brain scans to companies and individuals, promising to measure such intangibles as the compatibility of prospective partners, the truthfulness of a spouse or even a subject's soft-drink preferences. "We try to identify these hot spots," Illes says, "and help researchers be aware of how their work may be used, even for nefarious purposes."

Some companies insist they are determined not to cross ethical lines. Human Bionics, a neuroimaging firm that sells cognitive-assessment and lie-detection services, has hired Illes as an adviser and come up with a 180-page ethics policy that places limits on what the company can extract from the scans and who can access them without a subpoena.

Such ethical questions will eventually invade the home, Greely predicts. Suppose parents want to grill their teens about sex or drugs under a lie-detection MRI? Or try to make a rebellious kid docile? Ultimately, society will have to decide whether parents may do these things or whether child protective services should intervene. As brain science evolves, these questions will only get harder.

The answers, neuroethicists say, will come not from any pronouncements they might make but from the dialogue they are initiating with the public. "We need to keep this discussion rational," Leshner says, "so that science can advance and society can benefit from the tremendous potential of being able to look into the brain of a living, breathing, behaving individual and watch the mind in action."

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