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Beyond Big Brother: SANE, Security Attained through Neural Engineering



From: Dr. Parsons, Chief, Neuroengineering Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

To: Dr. O'Brien, Director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Re: New Initiative for Assuring National Security

Classification: Super Secret

Dr. O'Brien:

I would like to propose a major new research initiative, which could yield benefits for our nation—not to mention positive publicity for Darpa--greater than those stemming from any previous agency projects, even the Internet.

The public has reacted with admirable equanimity to recent media disclosures about domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Surveys show that a majority of American voters do not object to such surveillance. Ironically, Democrats, who traditionally have objected to vigorous U.S. security programs, seem to be especially supportive of NSA efforts!

Clearly, most Americans have the wisdom to recognize that if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. Their right to privacy and freedom from government intrusion is a small price to pay for protection from the many actual and potential threats facing our nation.

Of course, surveillance alone--even when supplemented by new techniques made possible by advances in unpiloted aerial vehicles--is an extremely inefficient method of achieving security. Hence I propose that Darpa initiate research on a far more effective, even fail-safe security system: Security Assurance through Neural Engineering, or SANE. (I must give credit to one of my grant officers, Dr. Syme, for conceiving this program appellation, which of course is subject to your approval.)

The central component of SANE is a multi-functional implantable neural device, the Sanity Module (again, Dr. Syme's coinage). The Sanity Module will be equipped with artificial dendrites and axons--perhaps based on emerging optogenetic technology--that receive signals from and transmit them to neural tissue. The module will include a chip for processing and storing information as well as a radio receiver/transmitter and GPS device.

The module will record basic information about its host's activities, including all movements and interactions with other persons. Although research on how the brain encodes information is proceeding slowly, breakthroughs should eventually make it possible for the Sanity Module to detect inappropriate or potentially inappropriate memories, emotions, perceptions and intentions in the host.

One final capability will make SANE more than just the realization of Darpa's former, unfairly maligned goal of "Total Information Awareness." The Sanity Module will include a disable function, which in response to a radio command from a SANE operative shuts down the motor functions of the host, facilitating arrest. Eventually the module—again, given advances in neural-code research—may even take control of the host's motor cortex and direct him to proceed to a specified location for more convenient capture.

To reduce expenses and encourage acceptance, the Sanity Module should be small enough to be implantable as an outpatient procedure via syringe, perhaps through the ocular cavity, rather than being inserted through holes drilled in the skull.

Implementation of SANE will pose challenges, notably decisions concerning who--and under what circumstances--will be equipped with a Sanity Module. During an initial technical and political pilot test, the module could be implanted in U.S. citizens arrested, indicted or convicted of crimes; illegal aliens and candidates for U.S. immigration and citizenship; and people associated with Islam or other suspect organizations.

The success of the pilot program, I am confident, will persuade the public to accept implantation of the Sanity Module in all U.S. citizens, including all infants within a week after birth.

Many actual and potential enemies of the U.S. dwell beyond its borders. Hence the U.S. should encourage other nations to implant Sanity Modules in their populations by making implantation a prerequisite for humanitarian or military aid. The U.S. could also assure nations that in exchange for implementing SANE they will never—or only in rare, emergency situations--be subject to U.S. drone strikes and cyberattacks.

Implantation exemptions will naturally be granted for high-ranking security and political personnel. Moreover, wealthy U.S. citizens could purchase exemptions for themselves and family members, with proceeds supporting SANE operations.

Darpa is now perfectly positioned to launch SANE, given that we are the major funder of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative recently announced by President Obama. I have no doubt that the U.S. neuroscience community--which has enthusiastically sought funding from Darpa and other military organizations without getting bogged down in endless ethical debates--will embrace SANE and quickly make it a reality.

I eagerly await your response to this proposal.

Yours truly, Dr. Parsons



The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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