Neurodata & Defence: Part I – Realities and Risks

James Giordano


In February, 2020, the United States Army announced “a big data approach” to enhance neuroscience research.

Dr. Jonathan Touryan, a U.S. Army scientist and co-author of a two-part report (see: Part 1 ; Part 2) that analyzed raw data from 17 individual studies, stated “the vast majority of human neuroscientific studies use a very small number of participants employed in very specific tasks… [which] limits how well the results from any single study can be generalized to a broader population and a larger range of activities.” Touryan’s team developed a novel labeling technology called Hierarchical Event Descriptors (HED tags) that can amalgamate disparate datasets from a wide range of experiments into a single analytical framework.

While notable, the U.S. Army is not alone in this pursuit. The combination of multiple disciplines (e.g., the physical, social, and computational sciences), and intentional “technique and technology sharing” have been critical to rapid and numerous discoveries and developments in the brain sciences.

This process, advanced integrative scientific convergence (AISC), can be seen as a paradigm for de-siloing disciplines toward fostering innovative use of diverse and complementary knowledge-, skill-, and tool-sets to both de-limit existing approaches to problem resolution; and to develop novel means of exploring and furthering the boundaries of understanding and capability.

Essential to the AISC approach in neuroscience is the use of computational (i.e., big data) methods and advancements to enable deepened insight and more sophisticated intervention to the structure and function(s) of the brain, and by extension, human cognition, emotion, and behavior.

To be sure, such capacities in both computational and brain sciences have implications for national security and defense initiatives. Several neurotechnologies can be employed kinetically (i.e., providing means to injure, defeat, or destroy adversaries) or non-kinetically (i.e., providing “means of contending against others,” especially in disruptive ways) engagements. While many types of weaponizable neuroS/T (e.g., chemicals, biological agents, and toxins) have been addressed in and by extant forums, treaties, conventions, and laws, other newer techniques and technologies – inclusive of neurodata – have not.

In this context, the term “neurodata” refers to the accumulation of large volumes of information, handling of large scale and often diverse informational sets, new methods of data visualization, assimilation, comparison, syntheses, and analyses. Such information can be used to (1) more finely elucidate the structure and function of human brain; and (2) develop data repositories that can serve as descriptive or predictive metrics for neuropsychiatric disorders. Benevolent intent and ends, to be sure.

However, the rapidity of such advances can – and often does – outpace securitization, and we believe that the uniquity of brain science and its applications – and meanings - render particular security vulnerabilities. Namely, the fact that the brain is regarded as the “source of the mind”, and all of the functions and implications arising therein, establish a normative aspect to neurodata. Simply put, neurodata can afford bases of what constitutes “normality” of brain structure, and functions (of thought, emotion, and behavior).

Access to such information can enable insertion of data (e.g.- in medical records, databases; registries; etc.) to alter the normative stature of targeted individuals (e.g.- developing data profiles that depict them to have, be premorbid for, and/or predisposed to neurological and psychiatric conditions), and thereby affect the way(s) they are medically, occupationally, and socially regarded and treated.

As well, neurodata can afford genotypic and phenotypic information that can be used to develop “precision pathogens” capable of selectively affecting specific targets (e.g. - individuals, communities; domestic animals; livestock; etc.).

 We have previously addressed concerns relating to biological data (i.e., from individual privacy to individual/group harm). The increasing availability, diversity, and specificity of neurodata create growing opportunities for its use and misuse. To this point, in 2012, Stephanie Kostiuk proposed the need for, and general scope of a “neurological information non-discrimination act (NINA)”, similar to the previously established Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA). We regarded – and continue to view - her proposal to be important.

Kostiuk’s notion of a NINA focused upon occupational bias(es) that could be based upon access to and use of neurodata. Indeed, unregulated availability of information about individuals’ pre-disposition to, possible pre-morbidity, and perhaps latent presence (i.e., endophenotype) of neuropsychiatric conditions and disorders could be leveraged to affect their perceived job qualifications, insurability, etc.; and a NINA of the type proposed by Kostiuk might limit the attractiveness of - and thus mitigate - usurping and altering neurodata for such ends.

However, it is unclear if a NINA of this sort would be wholly applicable to national security and defense occupations, in which candidates’ neuropsychiatric information may be relevant to obtaining clearances and being selected for or maintained on mission-specific duties.

Simply put, neurodata could be “faked good” (i.e., presenting an individual as neuropsychiatrically healthy if/when, in fact, a condition actually exists that might affect/limit their occupational capability) and/or “faked bad”* (i.e., to present an individual as having a pre-disposition for, or sub-clinical form of a neuropsychiatric condition that would preclude their viability for a given position).

Purloining and/or modifying such information could affect military and intelligence readiness, force conservation, and mission capability, and thus national security. Furthermore, manipulation of both civilian and military neurodata would affect the type of medical care that is (or is not) provided, could influence the ways that individuals are socially regarded and treated, and in these ways disrupt public health and incur socio-economic change.


Joseph DeFranco
Student Fellow of the Strategic Multilayer Assesment Branch
Joint Staff
Dr Diane DiEuliis
Senior Research Fellow, Center for the Study of WMD
National Defense University