If we relinquish our phones, how long until the police want to decrypt our minds?

Over recent weeks the FBI has been attempting to legally compel Apple to help them access an iPhone belonging to a suspected terrorist. This is, it appears, one of a number of similar endeavours in what is and will continue to be a larger effort by the FBI and other intelligence agencies to ensure they can access the increasing variety of devices that many of us now have. 

Having just won a similar case Apple seem in a strong position to resist further legal arguments that would have compel them to provide assistance in this and comparable cases not least because it would require them to undermine the security of its own products – the consequences of which are succinctly [summarised by this cartoon] by Stuart Carlson.

Extended mind

Drawing on the extended mind thesis first put forward by Andy Clarke and David Chalmers, philosopher Matthew Noah Smith [has argued] that iPhones can be considered an extension of our minds. First, the way we using them to store information can be seen as an expansion of our memories. Not only do we use them to record information - photos, shopping lists and passwords - that we either cannot or do not wish to memorise they can now automatically present us with that information according to spatial, temporal and cybernetic prompts - we are reminded about meetings in a timely fashion, to pick up garlic when near the supermarket and our passwords are provided automatically when we log-in to a wide variety of sites. 

More than this they are tools that augment the way we think. Like the abacus 2,500 years, or the pilot's flight deck today, external objects ago they facilitate and enable us to think in ways that we would otherwise not be able to achieve. As such, and as Smith argues, smart phones can be seen as integral to the mental process of "the networked self" and, therefore, as part of our minds. This leads Smith to claim that the FBI’s attempt to compel Apple to provide the security and intelligence services with access to iPhone’s can _literally_ be understood as a demand to access our minds, one that "massively compromises the boundaries of the self."

While one could counter with the suggestion that we tolerate comparable forms of invasion - such as searching homes, reading diaries and forensically examining desktop computers - the argument is not just about the extended mind. Rather it concerns the fact that we are not simply biological beings that are capable of _acquiring_ a culture, rather a culture is something we actively _require_ if we are to function as human beings. In this context consider the idea that today's young adults are a generation of 'digital natives' and what this might imply. We might conclude that the demands that the modern world places on the self mean that being networked, and making use of devices like smart phones, is no longer an optional amenity but a socio-cultural necessary, a ineliminable part of everyday life. It is conceivable that our culture will develop in such a way that it will become impossible to fully realize one’s self without being in some way "plugged in." 

While the boundaries of the self – and of public and private - have always been fluid, contemporary technological developments mean that this fluidity is, to mix a metaphor, also becoming porous. So, as Smith suggests, the smartphone is not simply the equivalent of one's home, one's diary or a safe, it is an extension of the self and, more importantly, one's mind. Some near future technological developments are likely to further blur the boundary between mind-brain and technology. Google Glass may have faltered for the moment but it is unlikely that wearable technologies and augmented reality will not come to be a significant part of our societies. We need to give serious thought to the degree to which we are prepared to tolerate such indispensible technologies being compromised by both corporate and state actors.

The Age of the Neuro

Whilst technologically driven attempts to examine the mind might seem to be a new phenomena there is some precedent. First, it is clear that Americans are prepared to tolerate significant compromises to the boundaries of the self. For example, if I understand correctly, routinely subjecting individuals to pre-employment, and even ongoing, blood tests seems to be a fairly common part of American life. Second, regardless of their actual efficacy, there is clearly a cultural acceptance of lie detector tests, so much so that American polygraphers have their own professional association. Clearly both drug testing and polygraphs represent invasions of the self, and the latter example can be clearly be considered as an attempt to peer into the mind. Similarly, the brain scan is now making its own way into the court room.

In this light, one might think that there are more compelling near future concerns than smart phones, wearable technologies and augmented realities. We live in the age of the Neuro where virtually everything that might be considered distinctly human is being subject to neurological analysis. Thus neuroethics, neuroesthetics, and neurotheology are considered new, viable and insightful modes of thought. Whilst [love is framed as a neo-evolutionary and neurochemical phenomena that, alongside other emotions, feelings and beliefs, is now seen as something we can subject to neurotechnological intervention and manipulation. Thus, practices in which the self is in some way invaded are only likely to increase. 

Nikolas Rose has recently suggested that the mind is increasing understood as a legible object. While we might be moving away from conceptions of ourselves as "discrete individuals", as Smith and many others suggest, and towards a broader appreciation of our status as embodied, extended, relational, situated, decentered and networked beings, the notion of brainhood - the idea of being, rather than merely having, our brains - remains central to the way in which we understand ourselves. 

Out with the effecting of some sort of radical (or transcendental) transformation at the core of our (phenomenological) being – the kind of thing that would not  merely be a transitional development in what it means to be human but would involve some fundamental change such that we would no longer be human - then, for the foreseeable future, we will remain embodied mind-brains whose subjective self-experience is of a individual whose mental life is their own and no-one elses. Thus the primary concern for those who wish to protect the boundaries of the self should be the neurosciences and near future neuro-technological developments. 

In this view arguing that state intrusion into our smartphones is literally equivalent to state intrusion into our minds might not be an advisable position to adopt. Even if Apple has not been compelled to assist the FBI in this case, there are many other cases in which a court could order you to unlock your smartphone, particularly if doing so involves biometric interaction, such as a fingerprint or retina scan. It is unlikely that, on the basis of the extended mind thesis, smartphones will be accorded extensive legal protection. Yet, if smartphones are considered part of our minds then this same thesis, coupled with the fact that they can be accessed in at least some circumstances, would seem to legitimate questions regarding the potential of neurotechnologies to provide state security services with access to the mind via the brain. 

Regardless of whether one thinks a neuro-technological lie detector is a realistic possibility – after all it is not clear that existing polygraphs are all that reliable – it is probably worth considering if we, as a society, would be prepared to tolerate their use. If we are concerned that the state might be granted the right to intrude into the technological devices that make up our “extended mind”, then the first step should be to ensure there are ethical, political and legal protections that will protect the biological basis of our (non-extended) minds from the investigative powers that the neurosciences may soon make possible.

This is a longer version of an article that was published by The Conversation. It was actually an earlier version that was edited, revised and edited again! I have reincorporated some of the subsequent changes but thought some of the content in this version interesting, so put it here.