Blackmail

About the author

This was during a talk I gave at Duke about 10 years ago.

BlaCkmaIl by Brendan ZaChary AllIson

“Lemme talk to your supervisor!”

“I’m the detective in charge of the Neuroforensics Department, professor.”

“Then help me out! Find these BCI blackmailers and bust ‘em!”

“Professor, it’s not a question of how the criminals managed to identify your… private behaviors from your ECoG data. The problem is that nothing illegal happened in the US. It’s out of our jurisdiction.”

“I was just playing computer games with their BCI. In the US. I never agreed to, you know. This.”

“You mentally signed an end user license agreement-“

“Oh, fuck you and EULA! Nobody thinks through those!”

“The EULA stated that any data could be sold to third parties and used for any other purposes.”

“Including blackmail? From a US-based company?”

“The game studio just sold your data. Legally. The fact that an entity abroad used it to blackmail you is beyond them, or us. You need to talk to the authorities where the crime occurred, in Svobodostan.”

“It, not them. Jesus, why don’t you guys hire real scientists?”

“I’m sorry?”

“The word ‘data’ is plural.”

“Thank you. That was helpful.”

Karen shook her head, then target-thought at the “think here” button on the table monitor. The squiggly lines with her raw ECoG flashed green in recognition of her mental command. A robot rolled by with yet another shot of vodcaine, which Karen drank very quickly. “It’s so unfair!”

“I agree. And you said they are using techniques that you invented for involuntary data mining against you.” He sighed sympathetically. “Such genius, perverted. It must be very frustrating for you.”

“I mean, I didn’t do it for this. I was just trying to get published. Not, you know, the private … really embarrassing kinds of personal- you don’t know me!“

“I’m not judging you, professor. What you do in your own time is your business.”

“Did! Not do. That was 20 years ago. I got therapy and… well, the obvious surgery. OK. Fine. I still do it a little, but only at home. And by myself or with consenting, um, you know…”

“Understood. Please remember this is all off the clock, we’re meeting at a small autostraunt on my own time, I hope you wouldn’t mind indulging me with a little of your expertise.”

“Yeah, fine.”

“You previously said that you were working on extending your revolutionary technique to identifying other types of potentially criminal activity. That could be relevant to my work with our department.”

“Oh. Yeah. Yeah!” Karen, though seated, got about an inch taller. “I haven’t submitted it yet, this is just in my head, can we agree what I’m gonna tell you won’t leave this room?”

“Absolutely.”

“OK. So it’s essentially another derivation of the Krusienski transform.” Karen paused to grin at her own cleverness. “There’s a lot of information about intent and valence in these transpectral components that most people ignore. So we have-“

“Wait. Sorry to interrupt. As you know, the technical details are way over my head. I’m just trying to find out how we can identify corruption, like you said before. Is it something that’ll be well-known soon?”

“Um. Well, after I publish it, yeah. Right now, I mean, nobody else thinks this way, it could be decades before anyone else-“

The squiggly lines on the table-monitor danced again a few milliseconds after being covered with Karen’s blood, brain, hair, cerebrospinal fluid, and dura mater intertwined with remnants of an ECoG grid. The detective holstered his pistol and walked away.

Author Commentary

The writer does not support the legalization of cocaine, in part because vodka-Red Bull is bad enough.

Realism

This story wasn’t meant to be technically realistic. Concerns with privacy and misuse of personal data are already widespread. Most people don’t read EULAs. Information that we think should be private often gets sold and re-used for goals we didn’t expect, want, or intend. Many peer-reviewed papers address such concerns with respect to BCIs.

It’s hard to judge the realism of blackmailing someone about an embarrassing private behavior since I never said what it was. (The story is funnier that way.) There are no BCIs to detect corruption per se, but BCIs for other putative goals could be repurposed. Indeed, one of the first papers about BCIs (Farwell and Donchin 1988) was adapted into an EEG-based tool to detect guilty knowledge (Farwell and Donchin 1991) and a business run by Larry Farwell. Disclaimer: I met Dr. Farwell a few times, but we never worked together. His approach could detect whether someone had “guilty knowledge” that only a corrupt person would have. Looking at it that way, EEG-based tools that could be used to identify corruption have been around for over 30 years. However, that approach would only work in specific contexts for certain types of corruption. It’s not like we can just look at anyone’s EEG and say whether that person is corrupt.

The article includes a respectful shout-out to Dean Krusienski, one of the top geniuses in BCI signal processing. Dean did say it’s OK to use his name here in this context.

Hope

Not one of my more positive stories. Karens may deserve public mockery and denial of their demands to harass supervisors, but not the death penalty. The mind behind a potential scientific breakthrough that could counteract corruption gets splattered. A corrupt cop gets away with murder.

Edit History

I wrote this in February 2022.

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