Hack my brain

In recent months, I’ve been watching episodes of the newly-released (in America, at least) anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It’s an animated series based on the characters and setting of the Ghost in the Shell manga (and movie). It is excellent–easily one of the best anime shows I’ve seen in quite a while–and I thought I’d take a few minutes to ramble about one of the show’s most interesting elements: brain hacking.
In the “hard” sci-fi, cyberpunk world of GitS, virtually everyone bears a electronic implant which grants constant, low-level access to a virtual world (called the Net) vaguely reminiscent of the present-day internet. (If you’re familiar with the cyberpunk genre, you know that some form of “virtual reality” is a key trope in such stories.) The protagonists of GitS are members of a special-forces military unit, and presumably have relatively advanced implants and Net access, but it’s clear that even “everyday citizens” possess and use implants in their day-to-day lives.
The implants are fused with the bearer’s optic nerve and spinal cord–essentially hardwiring Net access into the the brain. Among the “features” this allows:

  • the ability to communicate wordlessly with others elsewhere on the Net (digital telepathy, if you will). Characters can carry on silent conversations with others without moving their lips.
  • a graphical interface overlaid onto one’s field of vision, and the ability to instantly call up information on objects within your line of sight.
  • the storage (and broadcast) of personal identity, medical information, and history.

You can probably think of other applications of such a device. But one of the most fascinating side-effects of such a system–and a topic frequently explored by GitS–is the possibility that a brain with an implant can be hacked. The idea is simple: if your implant is sufficiently fused with your brain, a hacker who gains control of the mechanical implant can influence or gain complete control over your brain functions. The implant, with its permanent Net access, is actually a tremendous point of vulnerability.
Now, it’s clear that most implants are heavily secured against digital intrusion. Nevertheless, the world of GitS contains more than one super-hacker-villain with enough skill to hack into people’s brains in this fashion. In GitS, particularly crafty criminals can commit their crimes vicariously by hacking into innocent bystanders and using them to do the dirty work. Need a government official assassinated? Hack into his bodyguards and reprogram them accordingly. Need something stolen from a corporate facility? Hack the janitor and have him nab the goods for you.
In one recent GitS storyline, a villain trying to assassinate a politician released a virus into the Net that affected certain unsecured implants; the result was hordes of hacked citizens storming the politician’s hotel and taking potshots at him as he tried to flee through the crowd. In another instance, a villain hacked into the optic nerves of crime-scene witnesses to blur out important details–they watched the crime unfold in front of them, but their implants blurred the criminal’s face, so they couldn’t afterwards describe it to police sketch artists.
I find this a fascinating concept, especially given its relevance to current questions of computer and network security (insert Microsoft Outlook joke here). Hacking a bystander and reprogramming him or her to do your dirty work is reminiscent of spammers or crackers working through vulnerable, unsecured third-party computers to confuse the electronic trail leading back to them. In GitS, it creates interesting legal and moral situations in which the people who physically commit crimes are often completely innocent. Only if the police can follow the hacker’s electronic trail (which often involves backtracking through a long series of hacked bystanders) can they track down the criminal, since clues left at the crime scene (fingerprints, that sort of thing) aren’t those of the actual criminal.
Anyway, I thought the concept of brain-hacking was fascinating, and while I don’t think we’ll all be wearing brain implants of this sort anytime soon, it’s a logical evolution of modern-day internet technology. What do you think?
(side note: I’m aware of the distinction between ‘hackers’ and ‘crackers,’ but I use the term ‘hacker’ here as it’s used in most cyberpunk stories.)

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4 thoughts on “Hack my brain

  1. Ed Heil

    The comparison to Outlook and so on is more than a joke — it’s exactly the way things are working now. Right now you can buy access to a horde of “zombie PCs” on the spammers’ black market for the right sum — why not use them for cyberterrorism, or something equally sinister, instead of the annoying but harmless spam? GitS has been around for a while, hasn’t it? A bit prophetic…
    As for “the people who commit the actual crimes aren’t always the ones who are most to blame,” isn’t that what liberals always say? 😉 “It’s a fair cop, but Society’s to blame!”
    Society or a brain hacker…

  2. pcg

    The similarity to Snow Crash seems to be pertinent here. Stephenson’s characters’ brains are hacked, but not through technology – quite the opposite. The technology is the carrier for the visual virus that scrambles mens’ brains and turns them into the controller’s zombies.
    The ideas of cracking technology and further integration of technology and “meatspace” are not ones I would care to see converge too greatly. There is far too much at risk, and far too many incompetant tech peddlers out there, and I think the GitS stuff hits on the obvious problem. Unfortunately, the “unwashed masses” don’t really fathom the potential for abuse as technology becomes more and more pervasive, so said abuse is only going to grow, even as the stakes get higher. Problems like those we’ve seen with Passport and other information clearinghouses are, I’m afraid, only signs of things to come.

  3. topher

    Imagine the irony when the day comes that we can actually do that sort of thing, and the ones who resist and drag their feet are the geeks who understand the danger.

  4. jrau

    Ed: interesting points. I must admit, I’ve frequently wondered why we haven’t seen more serious/damaging online attacks–most of them seem to be fairly petty and small-scale in their effects. Perhaps it’s harder to write a highly damaging virus than I thought. It seems like just a matter of time, though.
    And the question of guilt and innocence where this sort of crime is involved is interesting, and I’m sure it won’t be long before we start seeing some serious legal ramifications. If your computer is exploited, are you at all responsible? Is the company the manufactured your computer/software responsible? What if the exploit could have been prevented by a patch which you failed to apply? All interesting and convoluted stuff. I’m sure that as soon as a major company suffers actual, severe damage (as opposed to a temporary website outage or whatnot) from a cyber-attack, we’ll see this issue crop up.
    Peter: Ah yes, Snow Crash. Good book. Out of curiousity, can any of you guys recommend any other cyberpunk-ish books that explore the idea of brain-hacking?

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