ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: There are a lot of concerns these days about the out-of-control collection of personal data online. But at the University of Washington, researchers are thinking much further ahead. They're already worrying about how to keep marketers from tracking our brains. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.
MARTIN KASTE: For just a few hundred dollars, you can buy yourself a consumer-grade brain scanning device. Technically, they're called brain-computer interfaces.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: With the Emotiv Insight, you can optimize your cognitive performance. You can measure and monitor your own or your family's mental health and fitness.
KASTE: Basically, what we're talking about here is headgear that senses electrical patterns in your brain. It can tell if you're excited or relaxed or focused. And that information can be used to, say, control a video game. Believe it or not, they just held the second annual NeuroGaming Expo in San Francisco.
HOWARD CHIZECK: It's happening somewhat faster than we thought.
KASTE: This is Howard Chizeck. He's a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington.
CHIZECK: A couple of the new products that have shown up are already along the pathway that I think we thought were probably a couple years away.
KASTE: And that's why Chizeck and some grad students have scrambled to set up this research project.
TAMARA BONACI: So it should be very tight, but it shouldn't be too uncomfortable.
KASTE: They put a sensor cap on a human subject - in this case, me. And then they have him play a fiendishly difficult video game they call "Flappy Whale."
CHIZECK: You're 26,000. 28...
CHIZECK: Oh, back to 27. Be the game. Be the whale.
KASTE: Now, while the human subject concentrates on flying the whale through barriers, occasional images flicker on the monitor. They're logos for fast-food or coffee shops. The sensor cap records the subject' responses to those logos.
BONACI: By putting something on your head, you're actually providing an extra source of information.
KASTE: Grad student Tamara Bonaci says that information that's leaking from your skull while you play the game can be very revealing.
BONACI: Consequences of providing that signal without thinking about it are probably similar to the consequences of giving your DNA sample to some online database.
KASTE: Really? Wearing a skullcap while playing a game is comparable to sharing DNA? It seems far-fetched, but Professor Chizeck says the day may come when millions of people play online games while wearing these things. Whoever controls the game could play a kind of 20 questions, collecting players' emotional responses to whatever they flash on the screen.
CHIZECK: I could flash pictures of a male-male, female-female, male-female couples and see which ones you react to. And going through sort of a logic tree, I could extract your sexual orientation. I could show political candidates and begin to understand your political orientation and then sell that to pollsters.
KASTE: Of course this is all still very theoretical. But that's why they're doing the research and why it's being funded by the National Science Foundation. If they can figure out what the privacy threats are ahead of time, maybe they can propose ways to build in security from the start. Chizeck says we shouldn't repeat the mistakes that were made in the early days of the Internet.
CHIZECK: When email started, defense against malware and spam and all sorts of other things was not built in. And, you know, now it's actually a question whether we can ever have a secure Internet.
KASTE: If Chizeck and his team are successful, maybe we can avoid future news stories about the stubborn problem of brain spyware. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.