We think of personal data as being about financial records, location history and other sources of algorithmic information. Even our face and fingerprints can be reduced to biometric algorithms. But data can come from an even more intimate source.
The motions of your human body generate tremendous amounts of data about your mind, revealing what captures your attention, what you like and what you fear. The posture of your body, the angle of your head, the micro-expressions playing across your face, all reveal your instant reactions to a product, a person, or a situation.
When it comes to mind-reading, the eyes have it.
The human sclera – commonly called the whites of your eyes – is rare in most higher mammals. Many scientists believe it developed as an important tool in human communication. We unconsciously follow other people’s sclera to track what they are looking at – while shopping at a department store, for example – so we can understand where their attention is going and notice what they are seeing.
Meta Platforms Inc., the rebrand of Facebook, has recently filed hundreds of patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that would employ mind-reading techniques with new eye-, face- and body-tracking technologies.
One Meta patent for a headset will detect a user’s facial expressions. Another is for a robotic eye that, like the human eye, tracks the movements of the user’s eyes to understand the elements in virtual reality that attract attention, and those which don’t.
Another patent is for a thin, robotic skin that will track body movements.
All these technologies will read the human body in order to read the human mind. Facebook is investing $10 billion in these virtual reality technologies because it wants to understand you better so it can improve the user experience and better target you with personalized ads.
But as we’ve already seen with social media tracking, technologies developed to sell ads can be purchased by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to reveal our personal information. Where we go, what we post and buy, and who we communicate with, provide data that is bought and sold by brokers to the government without the need for a probable cause warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Soon, government will be able to buy this data from technologies that track our eyes, facial expressions and bodily movements. What will this data tell about us? About our deepest fears? About our secret desires? About our innermost beliefs and thoughts?
Worse, what clues might we generate with our eyes, faces and bodies that would create unfounded suspicion?
If the technology Meta is developing is inevitable, it is now more urgent than ever to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would close the loophole in the law that allows data brokers to sell our personal information without the oversight of a court.
Congress should hold hearings on the privacy implications of Meta’s new technologies. But a good first step would be for the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act.