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November 16, 2023

Neurotech: productivity booster or brain-snatcher?

Many uses of ‘brain wearables’ risk overreach, even when intentions say otherwise.

In the news

Choose your own adventure:

“Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say.”


“An avalanche of brain-tracking devices” will soon hit the market, “threatening to breach the refuge of our minds.”

Two recent stories, two starkly different views of neurotechnology advances. But whatever your opinion about how it’s used, the tracking of electrical brain activity—electroencephalography, or EEG— has emerged from its medical and research lair to hit the consumer market. According to physicians and startups, it’s ready for prime-time commercial use.

One such startup, InnerEye, offers up an airline security use case. The company says a trained expert needs only 300 milliseconds to scan an image of a traveler’s luggage in search of a weapon; however, the ensuing actions (pressing a button, sounding an alarm) slow the process. InnerEye proposes to extract weapon identification directly from the brain without requiring further action.

That’s just one corner of the neuroscience tapestry. “Brain wearables” could bring notable healthcare improvements and improve focus and communication, advocates say.

But the potential for abuse, discrimination and control are nearly endless, others point out. Employers are already using neurotech-based cognitive testing in hiring and evaluation decisions, and history demonstrates that this use case will escalate. The question is whether these uses of neurotech should continue to expand.

The Cognizant take

“Neurotechnology is another frontier where technology attempts to correct the fallibility of the human,” says Caroline Watson, Data Privacy Manager at Cognizant. While in certain contexts it can benefit workers and society—such as monitoring truck drivers’ fatigue levels—as a whole “the breach of mental privacy is an extremely invasive and questionable practice,” she says. Businesses’ urge to penetrate the lives of employees even down to neuron-level electric signaling “is a massive overreach of the employer-employee relationship.”

The concept of brain surveillance in the workplace calls into question freedom of thought, Watson notes, which is foundational to human dignity and agency. “An individual should have the freedom not to disclose their thoughts and be free from punishment for those thoughts. Enforced disclosure of your mental state, in particular to your employer, could have negative ramifications for the individual, both in their current role and in the future.”

Individuals may be sharing far more than they realize even for a more innocuous application. Although fatigue monitoring for safety purposes has a logical basis, other applications—such as undertaking thought tracking specifically for the purpose of improving employee happiness— seem counterintuitive. Constantly monitoring employees’ attentiveness and focus while undertaking their work tasks could cause additional stress and an acknowledgment of zero trust in an individual’s work performance. Wouldn’t surveillance in this case disincentivize employees and create a culture of fear, leading to an increase in health issues as an anxiety to perform sets in?

It won’t be straightforward to validate the lawful and fair application of neurotechnology in the workplace. Doing so would certainly require careful scrutiny in the form of a privacy impact assessment with tight controls around purpose limitation, data minimization and sharing. Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), certain limited applications of such technologies may be justifiable, but it’s highly unlikely that a lawful basis could be found for a neurotech “well-being” monitoring program. “An employer would need to demonstrate that neural surveillance is necessary, justified and proportionate—the onus being that the key outcome could not be achieved any other way,” Watson says.

Due to the established power imbalance between employer and employee, Watson says, consent would likely not be considered “freely given,” as required under the GDPR, nor would it be valid if incentivized by health insurance discounts.

“The concept of fairness which underpins employment rights would also call into question whether contractual necessity could be used under such circumstances,” Watson says.

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