Neurosecurity: Definition, Scope, and Potential

Neurosecurity can be defined as studies and applications of:

(a) the concepts, practices, guidelines and policies dedicated to (i) identifying socio-political and military threats to neuro-psychiatric information and function, and (ii) preserving the integrity of both neuro-psychiatric information and neuro-psychiatric function of persons, groups and populations


(b) neuroscientific techniques and neurotechnologies to affect, manipulate and/or control neurological structures and/or functions of individuals, groups and/or populations in the service of national defense, and/or military objectives.

As history illustrates, new developments in science have- and will continue to have particular appeal for use in security and defense agendas, and this is certainly the case for neuroscience and its related (neuro)technologies – i.e. neuroS&T

A 2008 report conducted by the ad-hoc Committee on Military and Intelligence Methodology for Emergent Neurophysiological and Cognitive/Neural Science Research in the Next Two Decades National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies” addressed the state of neuroscience as relevant to the (1) potential utility for defense and intelligence applications, (2) pace of progress, (3) present limitations, and (4) threat value of such science. Stating that “…military and intelligence planners are uncertain about the likely scale, scope, and timing of advances in neurophysiological research and technologies that might affect future U.S warfighting capabilities,” the Committee essentially defined the state of the field in its assertion that “…for good or for ill, an ability to better understand the capabilities of the body and brain will require new research that could be exploited for gathering intelligence, military operations, information management, public safety and forensics.”

The brain and its functional activities of cognitions, emotions, and behaviors – which when taken together can be considered “mind” – represents both a new frontier in scientific research, and a viable target-of-opportunity for the employment of science and technology to affect and manipulate its functions.  Both of these venues are laden with ethical, legal and social issues, questions, and problems, and many of these stem from the miscommunication and misappropriation of neuroscientific information, and/or unrealistic assessments of neurotechnological capabilities.

As the 2008 Committee report noted, there is a fair amount of “… pseudoscientific information and journalistic oversimplification related to cognitive neuroscience,” and so any consideration of the possible use of neuroS&T for national security, intelligence and defense (NSID) would need to parse facts from the fiction about what these approaches actually can and cannot do. The goal is not to be merely dismissive, but rather to be critically perceptive, and keen to the potential for innovation and viable ways that neuroS&T could be developed, used and/or misused, to what ends, and by whom.

Simply put, the brain and nervous system can – and will – be engaged to effect outcomes relevant to NSID operations, and some of these efforts will most certainly be undertaken by countries other than the United States and its allies. Thus, it’s crucial to remain keenly aware of international research programs that could be used in ways that pose obvious threat(s) to security and defense. Obviously, surveillance of international research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDTE) is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to guard against such potentially negative and harmful uses of neuroS&T. Instead, it would be practically wise to develop a stance of national/public protection that is based upon preparation, resilience, and in some cases intervention to prevent the advancement of certain RDTE trajectories.

Such an agenda will require the coordinated efforts of scientists, engineers, ethicists, sociologists, futurists, and the public (although issues about the pros and cons of transparency of governmental research then come to the fore), and should conjoin academic, corporate and governmental sectors (the so-called ‘triple helix’ of the scientific estate) in this enterprise. This is not new; we need only to look at the Manhattan Project, and ‘Space Race’ for examples of this estate in practice.  But that framework, while viable, may need some ‘tweaking’ to enable a more convergent approach that allows for stronger collaboration between the sciences and the humanities. I argue that this involvement of both the humanities and the public (at least to some reasonable extent) is important because any real effect – both domestically and internationally – can only be leveraged through guidelines, laws and policies that are sensitive to ethical and social effects, issues, and problems. But international policies don’t guarantee cooperation.

So any meaningful efforts in neurosecurity must sustain an active research program – both to delve into the potential capabilities and limitations of neuroS&T, and to enable ongoing analysis and evaluation of possible future applications of this science and technology in order to empower ethical decisions and actions that can —hopefully – prevent the occurrence of risks and harms.