Privacy: UNESCO to develop ethical framework on neurotech devices

Neurotechnology could help solve many health issues, but it could also access and manipulate people’s brains, and produce information about our identities, emotions

By Seema Prasad
Published: Friday 09 June 2023
Neurotechnology could threaten our rights to human dignity, freedom of thought and privacy. Representative photo: iStock.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is all set to host an international conference to develop an ethical framework for the usage of neurotech devices that feed brain-wave data to computers through dry electrodes and implants.

The first-of-its-kind conference hosted by the UN body will be held on July 13, 2023, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. The dialogue will invite senior officials, policymakers, academics, civil society organisations and the private sector to address concerns regarding individual freedom of thought and privacy. 

Also read: You shed DNA everywhere you go, raising ethical questions about privacy

The 193 member states of the executive board approved director-general Audrey Azoulay’s proposal to discuss solutions to neurological problems with the help of neurotechnology while simultaneously assessing the threats it poses to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

“Neurotechnology could help solve many health issues, but it could also access and manipulate people’s brains, and produce information about our identities, and our emotions. It could threaten our rights to human dignity, freedom of thought and privacy,” Azoulay stated in a press release.

There is an urgent need to establish a common ethical framework at the international level, as UNESCO has done for artificial intelligence, Azoulay added. The conference aims to lay the foundation for a global ethical framework. It will be guided by a report by UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee on the “Ethical Issues of Neurotechnology”.

“Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is approved to treat a number of conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, dystonia, epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder,” the report stated.

DBS is also being studied as a potential treatment for major depression, traumatic brain injury, stroke recovery, addiction, chronic pain, cluster headache, dementia, Tourette syndrome, Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis,” it added.

The document cautioned that the “possible side effects of DBS are frequently underestimated. Complications of DBS fall into three categories: Surgery complications, hardware (device and wires) complications and stimulation-related complications.”

Manic psychosis, hypersexuality, pathological gambling and mood swings are associated with dopaminergic treatments of some advanced Parkinson’s disease, and there have been reports that these are made worse by DBS, it further said.

UNESCO strives to develop a framework similar to the established global ethical frameworks on the human genome (1997), human genetic data (2003) and artificial intelligence (2021).

Also read: ICMR releases guidelines for artificial intelligence use in the health sector

In its statement, the body acknowledged “the pervasiveness of AI technologies and the risks they pose to people, democracies and jobs. The convergence of neural data and artificial intelligence poses particular challenges, as already recognised in UNESCO’s AI standard.

The dialogue will also be guided by a yet-to-be-released UNESCO study that documents evidence on the neurotechnology landscape, trends and innovations.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the United Kingdom’s independent body set up to uphold information rights, has also recently proposed that new regulations be developed over neurotechnology usage in fields other than medicine. This is particularly in the areas of well-being, marketing and workplaces.

“We are most worried about the real risk of discrimination when models are developed that contain bias, leading to inaccurate data and assumptions about people,” Stephen Almond, ICO executive director of regulatory risk, told the Financial Times. 

He added workers with patterns of brain activity deemed undesirable may be unfairly overlooked for promotion.

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