Prof. Nita Farahany on “The Battle for Your Brain: Neurotechnology and National Security”

Today’s podcast features one of Duke Law’s most talented professors and someone who is, in my book, also the nation’s premier bioethicist: Nita Farahany.

Nita kicked off our 28th Annual National Security Law Conference with a fabulous presentation, “The Battle for Your Brain: Neurotechnology and National Security” and it’s now available on video here.

A little more background on Nita.  Not only does she have an eye-watering resume that includes a Duke Law JD, a masters degree, a Ph.D., and more, she is also the Founding Director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society and was recently interviewed by the Wall Street Journal (“When Your Boss Is Tracking Your Brain“).

What will you hear?  Here’s how she introduced her presentation:

“I want to talk with you about the sixth domain of warfare, which has arrived, which is cognitive warfare. And I want to focus on that because what you see increasingly across the world is a significant investment in the battle for our brains, and that battle is one that I think many people don’t realize has been waged for a while. Some people recognize it as an informational war. It’s become much broader than that already.

From a recent NATO-funded report, “The brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century. Humans are the contested domain and future conflicts will likely occur amongst the people digitally first and physically thereafter in proximity to hubs of political and economic power.”

And that idea that there is a different way that wars will be waged and a different focus of how to wage those wars is something that I think is so critically important for us to focus our attention on and focus our readiness and our development of our resources and our national security on in the days ahead.

So until recently, NATO had divided the wars into five different operational domains– air, land, sea– but with its developments of cognitive warfare strategies, what they’re talking about is the human domain. The human domain is the critical domain of where wars will be– where wars will be fought.”

And the main principle of this is that cognitive warfare isn’t just to gain an advantage over the enemy by controlling what he thinks, likes, or believes, but also by shaping and reshaping our representations of reality, what we understand to be real and true.

If that doesn’t get your motor running, I’m not sure what will.  You’ll hear also hear talk about brain heuristics, ChatGPT, TikTok’s algorithm, micropreferences, and wearable devices that record and analyses your brain activity.  She discusses a wearable headband made by a Chinese-based company which allows the accumulation of “millions of brain activity recordings from people worldwide engaged in everything from mind-controlled video games to working, to sleeping, to interacting with their computer.”  She adds:

“And they collect a lot more than just brain activity data. They are also collecting everything from personal information, GPS signals, device sensors, computers, the apps a person is using, what’s on their computer screen at the time. All of that’s plainly disclosed in their privacy policy.

And they’re collecting IP addresses, operating systems, referring web pages, other pages visited. Which means the US government probably shouldn’t just investigate whether or not TikTok is problematic, but also whether or not people are using Flowtime while watching TikTok, and other services, and what information about the human brain is being collected and how that information could be operationalized and used.

If we’re talking about the sixth domain, the human domain, freely giving away how people react to every piece of information that is in front of them is a little terrifying. And we should be worried and paying attention to this.”

She also shares some of what she learned writing her new, must-read book, The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of NeurotechnologyShe relates:

“One of the big themes that I write about in my book is the concept of freedom of thought. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression, if you don’t recognize it, if you’re not a country that recognizes freedom of thought– I mean freedom of speech and freedom of expression– you probably also do not care that much about freedom of thought.  

And I say that because if you think about the lines and the norms that might prevent some action by some countries, it’s about respect for human dignity, respect for the human mind, respect for agency of individuals and the capacity for decision-making, the capacity for being human.  

And attacks on the human brain attack literally the core of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be able to think freely, what it means to be able to think at all. And that’s a line, I believe, that as an international human rights principle, many countries should adhere to and not cross.

But if you look at some of the forms of psychological torture that have been undertaken where the idea is that if it doesn’t cause pain, it isn’t psychological torture, many of these different techniques don’t involve physical pain. Now, targeting to the brain to disable it and causing headaches, it does. Intercepting with manipulating or changing minds maybe doesn’t.   

I think our concepts of psychological torture at an international level and psychological harm and interference with freedom of thought are going to need to be updated to figure out where we think the lines should and shouldn’t be when it comes to this new domain of warfare.

And I think we should be prepared that our norms and lines here will be different than in other countries and adversaries will have different approaches to this, and we have to be prepared for that. We have to be prepared for the targeting of the human brain that is already happening and the increased ways and more precise ways that that’s going to happen over time.

Believe me, this is just a sampling of her terrific presentation, so be sure to watch (or listen to) the full version found here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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