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The Internet of Bodies

The internet of things is all the rage today. It’s everywhere. This evolutionary leap in technological terms gifted us autonomous vehicles, video doorbells, and smart refrigerators – day to day gadgets refreshed with implanted sensors and internet connectivity. What’s the next on the menu of emergent tech? The Internet of Bodies. That’s right, you heard it right. Technology is getting closer to us than every before, as we inch closer and closer to human and machine symbiosis, and potential immortality. 

What does this ‘Internet of Bodies’ hold in store for us? Think about smart pills communicating data from within your body, smart beds that can carry out heart rate and breathing tracking, even smart clothing that detect your physical temperature, and modify your smart thermostat with the data. A team of physicians just made an announcement with regards to the development of hardware and software for the longer-term analysis of a patient’s excreta – a smart toilet.  

There are some inherent risks, just like with any other technology, obviously, as RAND researchers discovered when they sifted through the internet of bodies. Devices are prone to security vulnerabilities, and such compromises within the human body can be catastrophic. Straight out of science fiction, there is the possibility of a malicious actor gaining complete control over your bodily functions, maybe even your thoughts. There’s a scary prospect if there ever was one. We need to contemplate long and hard about the privacy and security considerations of gadgets and chips that live within our bodies. However, the analysts, also illustrated the life-altering, live-saving potential of tech that is aware of us through and through. 

There’s been a lot of research on how we need to go about applying regulations to this internet of bodies. Not too many individuals have contemplated on the seeming advantages, and this has to be highlighted. Such systems are only bound to increase in popularity and prevalence, so the need of the hour is to stay on top of matters by tackling policy issues so we ensure adequate balance. 

What is the ‘Internet of Bodies’? 

Tamara Banbury, a Ph.D scholar based out of Ontario, Canada, has a distinct blue bump on the back of her right hand, in what appears to be a grain of rice under the tissue. That’s where her microchip is located. 

She is involved in a small but accelerating movement of innovation and of thrill junkies looking to hack the human body with technology. As a matter of fact, Tamara has dual microchips within her body. The chip implanted in her left hand has the capacity to record passwords, identification, and even store digital train tickets. The one in her right hand appears to be purely for trolling purposes, the tongue in cheek implant executes a video of Rick Astley singing his “Never Gonna Give You Up” when she waves her hand under a smartphone. 

Two decades from now, we shouldn’t be having any misgivings with regards to where we set the bar on these nascent technologies. Certain lines have been crossed, and we need to contemplate. And there’s no better time than now, when the implications are miniscule.  

Researchers at RAND have faced challenges in coming up with a definition for the Internet of Bodies. Ultimately, they adopted a wider perspective to assist policy makers think through the obstacles and prospects. They leveraged any device that obtains health or biometric data, or like Banbury’s – alters human functioning in some manner. To create that list, a gadget is also required to communicate data online, on its own or via another gadget such as a mobile phone.  

Within that scope, you’ll find fitness trackers, EHR, and even some staff badges. You also discover artificial pancreases that can enable diabetics to administer their blood-sugar levels, brain implantations that help amputees to manage their prosthetic limbs, and smart stents that can survey themselves for blood clots. Cochlear implants are already equipped to restore hearing, in the not too far away future, eye implants could fix or even improve vision. 

The influence these technologies are bound to have on the medical care system is nothing short of a pure paradigm shift. Artificial pancreases and smart stents will definitely increase the number of people who are alive, but the real revelation will be the data collection. All of those gadgets that track our health and behaviors will impart a wealth of new data about what makes and keeps individuals healthy, what causes illnesses. 

This will enable us to gain insight on longer-term population health and denote the path toward increasingly effective public health interventions. It could enable practitioners identify indicators of illness earlier, assist hospitals impart improved care and more accurate treatment regimens for their patients, and facilitate the American Health Care system reduce costs. Estimates put the cost savings of the enhanced care and efficiency of clinical tech at about one billion dollars annually. 

Privacy concerns 

Schmidt, a computer worker in Texas, requires a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP tool to sleep at night. Without the machine, he ceases to breathe hundreds of times a night. The day after he completed registration, he got an upbeat message from the producer, congratulating him on his first night of good sleep. 

At that point, Schmidt realized it was communicating his data, and he didn’t know what to make of it. Upon some thought, he immediately purchased a brand-new machine and switched off the web connectivity. He didn’t recall authorizing his sleep information to be accessible to anyone other than this medical practitioner. It was a very worrying scenario for him. He found it creepy that the machine was communicating information about his health patterns to individuals he didn’t even know. 

Privacy concerns such as the aforementioned are only one aspect of the risk as an increasing number of medical supplements are getting connected to the internet. Research has demonstrated that individuals can hack into an insulin pump, for instance, increasing the potential they could modify it to deliver a fatal dosage. Former VP Dick Cheney was so peeved that a malicious actor could assault him via his pacemaker the he switched off its wireless capabilities.  

Even simple wearables like fitness trackers can reveal private data. A few years back, a fitness app put a global map displaying each and every run and walk that it had tracked. Military analysts were swift to point out that the maps were comprehensive enough to pinpoint Allied and American bases in sensitive regions like Syria and Afghanistan. Foreign service members were the sole individuals leveraging a fitness app there, so their activities in and around these bases were identified as bright white against a black background. 

However, RAND’s analysts could identify only sketchy regulations and client protections that governed the internet of bodies and prevent possible harm to the users. Some of the most vehement efforts to set up guardrails came not from State entities but from nonprofit privacy and technology outfits. The analysts couldn’t even pinpoint who holds ownership of the data – you? Your medical practitioner? The equipment producer? The rules varied from state to state, in typical U.S. fashion. 

Congress should contemplate setting down some country-wide ground rules for data transparency and privacy concerns, the researchers opined. The State and industry should also produce a certification program, such as the “Energy Star” certification program that is currently deployed for everyday appliances, to assist customers to evaluate the security levels of disparate devices from varied manufacturers. Producers need to develop security right from the very beginning, and identify how to fix vulnerabilities in a gadget that might be in someone’s body. 

This is just the first cut with regards to what policy makers and device producers and clients can do to handle these privacy concerns and risks. There are tangible clinical advantages, but we have to tackle these loopholes to fully actualize the technology. This research provides us with a base to continue working on these questions going into the future.  

Tamara Banbury is also looking forward, both professionally as a research analyst, and in her private life as a cyborg who volunteered. Popular culture always makes the assumption that our landscape in the future will be proliferated extensively by smart gadgets – think the Terminator, or even the Matrix, but we will get to these levels of complexity in stages. The stages and steps that are required to be taken first need to be identified and evaluated. What will help us ensure that we are travelling in the direction that we wish to? Starting small, like Tamara Banbury, is the solution.  

The chips implanted in her hand are no more complicated than the chips on your credit card. However, she always receives similar questions when she converses with people about them: Don’t they put her private life at risk by enabling organizations to track her every move? She smugly responds, “Don’t you get it? We’ve already given those up” She displays her mobile smartphone. “They got us all with this.” 

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