In a neuro-techno future, human rights laws will need to be revisited

April 25, 2017

New human rights laws to prepare for advances in neurotechnology that put the 'freedom of the mind' at risk have been proposed today in the open access journal Life Sciences, Society and Policy.

The authors of the study suggest four new human rights laws could emerge in the near future to protect against exploitation and loss of privacy. The four laws are: the right to cognitive liberty, the right to mental privacy, the right to mental integrity and the right to psychological continuity.

Marcello Ienca, lead author and PhD student at the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel, said: "The mind is considered to be the last refuge of personal freedom and self-determination, but advances in neural engineering, brain imaging and neurotechnology put the freedom of the mind at risk. Our proposed laws would give people the right to refuse coercive and invasive neurotechnology, protect the privacy of data collected by neurotechnology, and protect the physical and psychological aspects of the mind from damage by the misuse of neurotechnology."

Advances in neurotechnology, such as sophisticated brain imaging and the development of brain-computer interfaces, have led to these technologies moving away from a clinical setting and into the consumer domain. While these advances may be beneficial for individuals and society, there is a risk that the technology could be misused and create unprecedented threats to personal freedom.

Professor Roberto Andorno, co-author of the research, explained: "Brain imaging technology has already reached a point where there is discussion over its legitimacy in criminal court, for example as a tool for assessing criminal responsibility or even the risk of reoffending. Consumer companies are using brain imaging for 'neuromarketing', to understand consumer behaviour and elicit desired responses from customers. There are also tools such as 'brain decoders' which can turn brain imaging data into images, text or sound. All of these could pose a threat to personal freedom which we sought to address with the development of four new human rights laws."

The authors explain that as neurotechnology improves and becomes commonplace, there is a risk that the technology could be hacked, allowing a third-party to 'eavesdrop' on someone's mind. In the future, a brain-computer interface used to control consumer technology could put the user at risk of physical and psychological damage caused by a third-party attack on the technology. There are also ethical and legal concerns over the protection of data generated by these devices that need to be considered.

International human rights laws make no specific mention to neuroscience, although advances in biomedicine have become intertwined with laws, such as those concerning human genetic data. Similar to the historical trajectory of the genetic revolution, the authors state that the on-going neurorevolution will force a reconceptualization of human rights laws and even the creation of new ones.

Marcello Ienca added: "Science-fiction can teach us a lot about the potential threat of technology. Neurotechnology featured in famous stories has in some cases already become a reality, while others are inching ever closer, or exist as military and commercial prototypes. We need to be prepared to deal with the impact these technologies will have on our personal freedom."
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Notes to editor:

1. Research article:


Towards new human rights in the age of neuroscience and neurotechnology
Marcello Ienca and Roberto Andorno.
Life Sciences, Society and Policy
April 2017

DOI: 10.1186/s40504-017-0050-1

During embargo period, please contact Matthew Lam for a full copy of the article.

After the embargo lifts, the article will be available at the journal website here: https://lsspjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40504-017-0050-1

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

2. The purpose of Life Sciences, Society and Policy (LSSP) is to analyse social, ethical and legal dimensions of the most dynamic branches of life sciences and technologies, and to discuss ways to foster responsible innovation, sustainable development and user-driven social policies. LSSP provides an academic forum for engaged scholarship at the intersection of life sciences, philosophy, bioethics, science studies and policy research, and covers a broad area of inquiry both in emerging research areas such as genomics, bioinformatics, biophysics, molecular engineering, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, and in more applied fields such as translational medicine, food science, environmental science, climate studies, research on animals, sustainability, science education and others.

3. SpringerOpen, launched in June 2010, includes Springer's portfolio of 200+ peer-reviewed fully open access journals across all areas of science. In August 2012, due to the growing demand for open access and the success of our SpringerOpen journals, we expanded our offering to open access books. Published under the SpringerOpen brand they complement our established open access journal portfolio. SpringerOpen journals and books are made freely and permanently available online immediately upon publication. They are subject to high-level peer review, author and production services ensuring quality and reliability of the work. Authors publishing with SpringerOpen retain the copyright to their work, licensing it under a Creative Commons license. To cover the cost of the publication process, all SpringerOpen journals and books charge an open access fee.

4. BioMed Central is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Nature, a major new force in scientific, scholarly, professional and educational publishing, created in May 2015 through the combination of Nature Publishing Group, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Education and Springer Science+Business Media. http://www.biomedcentral.com

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