Thursday, May 27, 2010

Our 'human "infected with computer chip virus"' story

Our story about the scientist who said he had become the first human to be infected with a computer virus provoked strong reactions. It was certainly a crowd-puller, with hundreds of thousands of you reading the story or watching the video interview with Dr Mark Gasson.

But it also provoked plenty of derision - from e-mailers, from the online news site The Register, from the respected security blogger Graham Cluley, and even from the archbishop of Bad Science himself, Ben Goldacre.

While I accept that I should have adopted a more sceptical tone - and stressed more clearly that any threat to implanted medical devices was decades away - I think the story was worth doing. Why? Because a world where more of us have computing devices inside our bodies is not science fiction and is bound to throw up interesting ethical and security questions.

I asked Dr Mark Gasson to respond to some of the criticism in his own words. Here is what he had to say:

"In our research we are exploring from a multi-disciplinary perspective the potential and risks of implanted devices. The research here has used a vulnerability in the technology to allow an engineered computer virus to propagate via an implant.

The aim, in part, is to put a milestone in the development of implantable technology and to highlight the potential security risks of the future. Indeed poorly considered security in medical devices is becoming well documented in the literature (D. Halperin, et al. 'Security and privacy for implantable medical devices,' IEEE Pervasive Computing, vol. 7(1), 2008, pp. 30-39.) and healthy people implanting potentially vulnerable technology is also becoming more common (e.g. A. Graafstra, 'Hands on,' IEEE Spectrum, vol. 44(3), 2007, pp. 18-23).

New applications will also surely appear as these two aspects merge. We are also interested in the philosophical questions surrounding what we perceive to be our own body's boundaries. It is known that some people with invasive medical implants over time consider them to actually be part of their body. In this context we can and should talk of computer viruses infecting the person. By actually having an implant, this very interesting and complex phenomenon can be explored, and contributes to the growing academic discussion. Results of this study are to be published in the peer-reviewed IEEE ISTAS conference next month."


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