Over recent years, Americans have become increasingly aware of how the federal government, local agencies and even private corporations are spying on their daily behaviors. With laws like the PATRIOT Act opening the door for Orwellian programs like PRISM, Vault 7, aircraft surveillance and the Stingray, privacy in the 21st Century seems all but dead.
It is sometimes said that the only privacy we have left is in our own heads. But in the not-too-distant future, that might no longer be true either.
During his recent interview on episode 102 of the PRIMO NUTMEG podcast, futurist Jake Dunagan discussed how politics is being constantly reshaped by technology. In doing so, Dunagan also gave a brief overview of the study of neuropolitics:
"A lot of what people call 'neuropolitics' these days -- which is still kind of a term of art -- really is looking at trying to do, in many cases, MRIs (magnetic resonance images) of people's brains as they react to stimuli and make political inferences about it.
"So some of the early studies showed, or claimed, that.. Republican brains respond to stimuli differently than liberal brains... And they look at the brain-scans of people responding to violent images or disgusting images and make inferences about that based on that."
From there Dunagan made some predictions about how this or similar technology might be helpful in preventing violent acts:
"Some of the ways that we can surveil the brain now, that we may be able to preempt certain kinds of actions. We see these violent acts that seemingly happen every day.
"If we could in some ways see that coming -- either through inference through peoples' communication or somehow, you know, I potentially see a future where, if we're indirectly scanning people's thoughts, that that information will have to be used to, governments will be compelled -- or the people in power will be compelled -- to use that information."
While this kind of mind-surveillance might seem dystopian, Dunagan "caution[ed] against any blanket statements" regarding how technology might negatively impact privacy rights:
"The kinds of invasions that we've allowed into our lives, where we are carrying around listening devices and supercomputers in our pockets that's recording almost our entire lives to some degree, provides a vector of control that is unprecedented. And I think we are seeing individuals and agents in the system abuse that potential in some ways. So we have to fight back against that if we want to keep the good and try to curtail some of the negative outcomes for it.
"So I don't think anything is inevitable in that. But we have certainly seen the push for certain kinds of ideologies of social control. Obviously the government surveillance issues that have been brought out in the last few years, that once these technologies exist, if we don't put some kinds of barriers -- legal, cultural norms, all of these barriers that we have to put in place to stop the kinds of activities we don't want to see -- then, yes, the risk there for abuse and the kinds of control we've never seen before is there.
"I mean, that's one of the things that I was trying to bring out in my work in neuropolitics, to try to get ahead of it a little bit and say that, 'There's not mind-reading technologies that exist right now that can just ambiently gather my thoughts, but we're heading in a way that those kinds of things might become possible.'"
Dunagan also made clear that, even without machines scanning society's brainwaves, there already exist ways in which people's online posts and conversations can be monitored:
"And even prior to that, we have a whole stream of words that we put out on the Internet that are kind of our extended minds that are being surveilled. And we can see patterns in that. There is certain research showing certain depressive states or certain suicide rates can be determined by the kinds of pronouns that people use, for example."
In the end Dunagan concluded that society needs to confront these issues now:
"Whether it's gathered through some new breakthrough technology that can do ambient mind-reading or we're just gathering it from the normal things that we do -- how do we want to allow that information to be used? And that's an inherently political question."