A neuroethicist and a human rights attorney have proposed that human rights be expanded to guard the sanctity of the human mind in the face of rapid advancements in neuroscience and neurotechnology.
The four rights that are specifically addressed in their research paper, published in the Journal of Life Sciences, Society and Policy are the right to cognitive liberty, the right to mental privacy, the right to mental integrity and the right to psychological continuity.
Rapid advancement in neurosciences has created unprecedented possibilities for accessing data from the human brain. Cutting edge neurodevices include neuroimaging, neurostimulators and brain-computer interfaces that can have clinical research, marketing and even military applications.
The researchers make the case that the growing use and rapid advancements in this type of technology present a legal, ethical and social challenge that may ‘force a reconceptualization of certain human rights’ or even the creation of a new standard of human rights, which they term neurorights.
The first of the neurorights proposed is the right to cognitive liberty. This refers to the rights of an individual to choose whether or not to use emerging neurotechnologies, protecting them from being forced to use neurotech under coercion or without consent.
The second is the right to mental privacy, in which the team advocates expansion of privacy and data protection regulations to cover neural activity in addition to other types of information.
The third neuroright calls for a reinterpretation of existing guarantees of the right to mental integrity to account for the complexity of issues introduced by neurotechnology. Specifically, the paper focuses on the brain-computer interface, or BCI, which just a week ago was announced as an upcoming feature of Facebook. The Facebook BCI will allow users to post directly from their minds, and may be available as soon as two years from now.
However, a BCI may be manipulated or hijacked, and could involve direct manipulation of a person’s neural computation. For this reason, mental privacy and the protection of brain data are at risk, not to mention a person’s physical and mental health.
Finally, the right to psychological continuity addresses the right of a person to maintain an individual identity without third-party modifications. Some therapeutic applications of transcranial direct current stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and deep brain stimulation have been found to be beneficial to patients in research and therapy. In light of this, the right to psychological continuity would protect an individual from being subjected to this type of stimulation without consent, or by protecting the underlying neural functioning, should one choose to participate in this type of neurostimulation.
Marcello Ienca, co-author of the paper and a neuroethicist at the University of Basel, told the Guardian, “The question we asked was whether our current human rights framework was well equipped to face this new trend in neurotechnology.” They concluded that it was not, and that a reconceptualization of human rights is required to protect the individual in the face of the potential for unanticipated consequences or the misuse of neurotechnology.
“The information in our brains should be entitled to special protections in this era of ever-evolving technology,” he said. “When that goes, everything goes.”