Cognitive Liberty & Brainwaves: The New Digital Frontier

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John Anderton: Mr. Marks, by mandate of the District of Columbia Precrime Division, I’m placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks and Donald Dubin that was to take place today, April 22 at 0800 hours and four minutes. (Minority Report by Steven Spielberg)

The science fiction film “Minority Report” serves as a powerful allegory for the tension between free will and determinism, highlighting the potential dangers of using advanced technology to radically alter societal systems. The movie’s portrayal of a pre-crime system, where individuals are arrested and punished for crimes they have not yet committed, illustrates how determinism, fueled by sophisticated technology, can erode personal autonomy, and undermine the very notion of free will. As neurotechnology advances, the ability to manipulate brainwaves and thought patterns should raise red flags concerning potential implications for mental privacy and cognitive liberty.

Neurotechnology encompasses devices designed to monitor or modify the activity of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. Initially employed primarily in medical and research contexts, these devices are now increasingly being targeted at consumer markets. Neurodata serves as a model of an individual’s mind, potentially enabling the prediction of their past and future behavior. For instance, virtual reality facilitates the collection of diverse data through immersive experiences, which can then be processed by artificial intelligence (AI) systems for various purposes, such as marketing, political communication, and perhaps one day providing evidence in legal proceedings.


Some key areas of neurotechnology include:

  • Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs): These devices allow direct communication between the brain and an external device, enabling the control of computers or prosthetic limbs using brain signals.
  • Neuroimaging: Techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetoencephalography (MEG) are used to visualize and study brain activity. (“Posner Cueing Task: Attention Shifts in Cognition (Cognitive Science)”)
  • Neurostimulation: Methods such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and deep brain stimulation (DBS) are used to modulate brain activity for therapeutic purposes or research.
  • Neuroprosthetics: These devices aim to restore lost sensory or motor functions by interfacing with the nervous system, such as cochlear implants for hearing and retinal implants for vision.

Are you ready for neurotechnology and EEG’s to be your newest workplace companion? The IEEE Spectrum article “Are you ready for workplace brain scanning?” (Ackerman & Strickland, 2022), imagines a possible near future where neurotechnology can reliably decode brain activity and influence thoughts.

The Windmills of Your Mind

Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel. Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel. As the images unwind, like the circles that you find In the windmills of your mind! (French composer Michel Legrand)

The company EMOTIV promotes the extraction and use of brain data as ways to make workers happier and more productive. EMOTIV, a bioinformatics company, uses EEGs to understand the human brain. Founded in 2011 by Tan Le and Dr. Geoff Mackellar, EMOTIV focuses on cognitive performance tracking and monitoring emotions by translating complex EEG patterns into cognitive state measures through machine learning algorithms. EMOTIV’s technology monitors various cognitive states, including:

  1. Interest: Attraction or aversion to stimuli.
  2. Excitement: Emotional intensity experienced by stimuli or environments.
  3. Frustration: Emotional tension experienced when completing a task.
  4. Engagement: Immersion in an activity.
  5. Relaxation: Calm focus after intense concentration.
  6. Boredom: Decreasing engagement during an unstimulating task.
  7. Attention: Vigilant focus while performing a task.
  8. Cognitive Stress: Effort required to complete a task.

A relevant warning concerning inventions that target the mind comes from Plato’s “Phaedrus”:

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who learn it, by neglect of their memory, inasmuch as through their trust in writing, externally because of characters that are not their own, they will not remember internally themselves by their own. You have not discovered a drug for memory but for reminding. You provide those who learn it with the appearance of wisdom, not truth. For they will become much learned because of you but without instruction they will only seem to be very wise, while being for the most part ignorant, and difficult to be with, since they have become seemingly wise instead of being wise.”

(Plato, Phaedrus 274e-275b)

Manipulation of memory and knowledge, though discussed by Plato in a different context, can metaphorically apply to contemporary concerns about technology leading to a population that appears wise but lacks true understanding.

Mnemosyne Weeps – Decoding Brain Activity

“And I pray to the well-robed daughter of Ouranos, Mnemosyne, and her daughters, to give resourcefulness, for blind are the minds of men, whoever without the Heliconians seeks …. the steep path of wisdom.” (van Veldhuizen, M., 2012).

(Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, held a central role in education, rhetoric, and philosophy.)

The potential for invasive surveillance, where personal thoughts are no longer private, raises urgent questions about mental privacy and cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty, the right to mental privacy, should be considered a fundamental human right that should protect our thoughts and mental images from being accessed without our consent. As brain scanning technologies advance, such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy, semantic decoders, and AI systems that can analyze brainwaves, the potential for misrepresentation and deception in their use raises significant ethical concerns. The article When technology can read your brain waves, who owns your thoughts? (“Knapp’s News 4/21/24 | Coast to Coast AM”) states that more than 66.7% of neurotechnology companies explicitly mention sharing consumer data with third parties. The varying degrees of deception that could be involved in the uptake and use of these devices underscore the importance of interpreting the right to freedom of thought beyond ideas of religion and belief. Consequently, we must establish robust safeguards to ensure that individuals’ cognitive liberty is protected and that their mental privacy is not violated without their explicit consent.

Legal Protections for Neural Data

In response to these cognitive privacy concerns, the first-of-its-kind law passed in Colorado, known as HB 24-1058, expands the definition of “sensitive data” in the state’s Privacy Act to include neural data. This law gives consumers greater control over how neurotechnology companies collect and share their brain data, requiring businesses to obtain consent before collecting neural data and to limit the amount of unnecessary information they collect.

Under this law, Coloradans have the right to access, correct, or delete their neural data and to opt out of the sale of that data. These provisions are crucial, as neural data collection often involves the involuntary disclosure of information. Neural data can be collected through consumer-grade, noninvasive devices such as wellness headbands and wristbands, and gaming headsets and are not subject to medical privacy regulations. The law’s authors emphasize that individuals are unlikely to be fully aware of the extent or content of the data they are sharing, even when they consent to its collection.

Supporters of stricter neural data protections, like Neurorights Foundation Medical Director Sean Pauzauskie, praise Colorado’s action. Pauzauskie highlighted the unprecedented power of this technology to identify and potentially discriminate against individuals based on their brain waves and other neural information.

The Future of Neural Data Ownership

Colorado’s law should set a precedent for other states and countries to follow. On the national level, the U.S. currently lacks federal legislation specifically addressing how companies access or use neural data. Internationally, the Chilean president Gabriel Boric who was 35 when he won the election, signed on October 25th, 2021 a constitutional amendment enshrining neurorights via protecting brain activity and data into effect. Approval of a neurorights bill by the senate was concurrently established through the Chilean Law N 19.628.

While the neurotechnology industry is still in its early stages, proactive efforts to regulate it must focus on setting standards and steer the industry toward a privacy-conscious future. The report Safeguarding Brain Data: Assessing the Privacy Practices of ConsumerNeurotechnology Companies is the first comprehensive report analyzing the data practices and user rights of consumer neurotechnology products. Early regulations are crucial, as retroactively applying new laws to established technologies and practices is often challenging. The current debate over social media regulations serves as a cautionary tale of the difficulties in addressing privacy concerns after technology has become deeply ingrained in society.

Navigating the Ethical Landscape of Brainwave-Decoding Technology

In conclusion, Neal Asher’s character Jobsworth, in “War Bodies,” Polity Universe series ( 2023) poignantly states, “A quarter century after the creation of the first AI, and after cloned whole-body swapping had been going on for fifty years, people finally realized the legal system required a severe upgrade.”

The rapid advancements in brain scan technology and the potential for misuse of personal neural data underscore the urgent need to safeguard cognitive liberty. As the sophistication of devices capable of reading and interpreting brain waves continues to grow, we must engage in transdisciplinary discussions to establish a robust legal framework and ethical standards to protect the sanctity of our innermost thoughts. The concerns raised, such as the potential for deception, manipulation, and unauthorized intrusion into our mental privacy, highlight the importance of informed user consent and the recognition of cognitive liberty as a fundamental human right.


Ackerman, E., & Strickland, E. (2022). ARE YOU READY FOR WORKPLACE BRAIN SCANNING? IEEE Spectrum

Burnet, J. (Ed.). (1903). Phaedrus (Oxford Classical Texts). Oxford University Press.

Race, W. H. (Ed.). (1997). Pindar (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard University Press.

Plato. (1903). Phaedrus (J. Burnet, Ed.). Oxford University Press.

van Veldhuizen, M. (2012). A theology of memory: The concept of memory in the Greek experience of the divine (Master’s thesis, Brandeis University). Brandeis University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Classical Studies.

This article has been produced by Dr. Jasmin (Bey) Cowin, Associate Professor and U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2024) As a Columnist for Stankevicius she writes on Nicomachean Ethics – Insights at the Intersection of AI and Education.

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Dr. Jasmin Cowin

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