Privacy and Brain-Computer Interfaces




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De Montfort University


Thesis or dissertation

Peer reviewed


The research described in this thesis draws on three distinct fields: privacy, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), and critical theory (specifically, Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action). There are two aims. The first is to identify whether BCIs disrupt privacy, and if so, how. The second is to contribute methodological observations and insights. In meeting the first aim, two subjects are explored: privacy and BCIs. In this research, privacy is understood to take diverse and pliant forms and to be mutually instrumental in the formation of other social values and social contexts. Social contexts may be disrupted by emerging technologies, such as BCIs, which may then disrupt privacy. Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are a group of emerging technologies that interpret someone’s neural activity in order to provide control of external devices. In the literature, it has been suggested that BCIs may disrupt privacy. To the extent that privacy perpetuates other social values, this project has an emancipatory intent which places the research within the purview of critical theory. Critical theory encompasses a broad range of research practices. The research reported here applies a novel method informed by features of Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action (TCA) which was triangulated by an implementation of contextual integrity approach to studying privacy. As the TCA component of the research method is novel, the second research aim is feasible: the contribution of methodological observations and insights. A review of the literature identifies five relevant privacy concepts and four types of BCI. These are orthogonally positioned such that twenty different contexts of potential privacy disruption are considered. These contexts form hypotheses for the project’s first research question: do BCIs disrupt privacy? The method produced both quantitative and qualitative data, within which 35 indications were identified. These indications culminated in 6 knowledge contributions in the form of 2 findings, 1 design recommendation, and 3 methodological recommendations. The research data indicate that BCIs disrupt privacy because BCIs disrupt agency, fairness, self-determination, autonomy, justice, power, and to lesser extents, other values. Design and methodological recommendations are made before concluding the thesis with discussions of the potential social impact of this research, options for future research, and learning outcomes.





Research Institute