Scientists expect to be able to electronically record the brain signals that make memories within the next five years – and cybercriminals could use that technology to hack your brain.

Brain implants known as implantable pulse generators (IPGs) are already used to treat brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and depression. They use electrical signals to stimulate or block nerve impulses in the body.

The latest versions of these devices come with management software for both patients and clinicians to access on a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth.

Research by cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab and the University of Oxford Functional Neurosurgery Group explored vulnerabilities in these implanted devices and found a number of potential risks, such as an unencrypted data transfer between the implant, software and network.

The Russian company warns that in serious cases this type of brain hacking could be used to inflict pain or paralysis, as well as the theft of personal data.

Kaspersky researchers also note that these devices have weak password security, with physicians needing access to the password in case of an emergency.

Brain implants need secure passwords

Weak default passwords, recently highlighted by the UK’s new Internet of Things Code of Practice, also open the possibility of brain hacking.

Commenting on the results of the investigation, Dmitry Galov, junior security researcher for Kaspersky Lab’s global research and analysis team said:

“Current vulnerabilities matter because the technology that exists today is the foundation for what will exist in the future.

“Although no attacks targeting neurostimulators have been observed in the wild, points of weakness exist that will not be hard to exploit.”

He added that healthcare and cybersecurity professionals, as well as device manufacturers, need to work together to mitigate potential vulnerabilities – “both the ones we see today and the ones that will emerge in the coming years.”

Brain hacking: Fact or fiction?

The first commercial memory boosting plants could appear on the market within the next decade. More speculative still, the technology to control memories could exist in the next 20 years.

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Straying into Inception territory, this opens up the possibility of cybercriminals planting or altering memories, as well as stealing them for ransom.

“Memory implants are a real and exciting prospect, offering significant healthcare benefits,” said Laurie Pycroft, doctoral researcher in the University of Oxford Functional Neurosurgery Group.

“The prospect of being able to alter and enhance our memories with electrodes may sound like fiction, but it is based on solid science the foundations of which already exist today.

“Memory prostheses are only a question of time. Collaborating to understand and address emerging risks and vulnerabilities, and doing so while this technology is still relatively new, will pay off in the future.”