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Consumer EEG, Mental and Emotional States, Privacy and the Brain (2018-2019)

What if you could control the world around you with your thoughts and a simple, portable device? Companies like Emotiv, Neurosky and Interaxon are just some of the companies that manufacture portable consumer-based headsets that claim to do just that. While this isn’t quite mind control, we are getting closer to that future possibility.

These headsets sense the electrical activity inside a person’s brain using a technique known as electroencephalography, or EEG. These electrodes can measure the electrical signals produced by the brain’s neurons through the scalp. EEG can be used to determine an individual’s level of attention, emotional state and even processing of complex questions.

While EEG has been used as a diagnostic tool for more than half a century, consumer-based devices that are simple, portable and easy for individual use are just now on the market.

These consumer-based EEG devices, which are being used by the military and sports teams to detect fatigue, are marketed and sold to everyday consumers for tracking and improving their own brain activity through neurofeedback. This accessibility makes the process of running EEG experiments more efficient, while also allowing for the expansion of EEG research to non-traditional settings. However, these devices raise a unique concern about collecting and sharing data practices because of their unprecedented ability to gather real-time brain activity in everyday situations (e.g., education, employment, fitness or gaming). This collection of neural activity in the brain—and inferences about what that brain activity means with respect to basic internal emotional and physical states is possible.

Privacy, Consumer EEG Devices and the Brain (2017-2018)

Consumer electroencephalogram (EEG) devices, or brain wearables, are marketed and sold to consumers for tracking and improving their brain activity through neurofeedback. These devices raise unique concerns about data gathering and sharing practices because of their unprecedented ability to gather real-time brain activity in everyday contexts such as education, employment, gaming and fitness.

This project team explored consumer attitudes, perceptions, behaviors and judgement about consumer-based EEG devices. The team created and administered two surveys designed to address general attitudes towards brain wearables and perceptions of data collection and privacy. The team found that although many survey participants wanted to try brain wearables on themselves, most were uncomfortable with the idea of sharing their data with third parties even when they had control over their sharing preferences. The team also found that people were very concerned that consumer-based EEG devices would be capable of reading their thoughts. However, the team discovered that only specific types of thoughts are considered highly sensitive, leading them to conclude that ongoing calls for neuroprivacy must be calibrated with consumer concerns regarding particular types of information.