From our refrigerators knowing what we want to eat to our smart televisions knowing which episode of our favourite series we’re yet to see, or even our thermostats and vacuum cleaners speaking to us about our houses, the Internet of Things (IoT) has gradually become a part of our lives. Now, this technology has made its entry into human bodies where devices and pills can be injected into our bodies in order to produce real-time healthcare data, also termed as Internet of Bodies (IoB).
Staying true to the nature of the term, IoB is an extension of IoT, where the human body is being connected to the internet through devices that are either injected or implanted into the body. And once connected to the network, the data of the human body can then be exchanged and can be remotely controlled.
Using the human body as a data platform comes with enormous possibilities in the healthcare domain. With the progress in wireless connectivity across the globe, this possibility is now becoming unstoppable. In fact, according to a report, it is estimated that about 20 billion IoT devices will be connected to the internet by the year 2020. However, every technological advancement comes with challenges that require to be safeguarded.
Concept & Development
Although IoB is usually considered as the future, researchers believe that the future isn’t that far away. At present, this technology has paved its way to the healthcare sector making drastic improvements in the field of monitoring health data.
Professor Andrea Matwyshyn of Northeastern University, School of Law divided IoB devices into three generations:
- Body External: This includes wearable devices such as Fitbits and Apple watches that can monitor the health of an individual. According to IDC, the overall wearables market is expected to grow from 113.2 million shipments in 2017 to 222.3 million in 2021.
- Body Internal: This includes devices like pacemakers, cochlear implants and digital pills that are placed inside the human body to monitor and control various aspects of health.
- Body Embedded: This third generation of IoB includes melding of human bodies with external devices to have a real-time connection to a remote machine.
Examples of IoB innovations include WiFi-based pacemakers, a small device placed in the human chest to help patients with heart conditions. Another smart innovation is the development of ‘smart contact lenses’ which are used by patients to correct their vision. Smart lenses also allow diabetic patients to monitor their glucose levels without the prick of a needle.
‘Smart pill’ is another IoB device that is embedded with edible electronic sensors, used to collect data from the organs and monitor the inner workings of the body. This can also be used in the treatment of cancer where chemotherapy pills are combined with sensors for better monitoring of the patients. Digital tattoos and self-tuning brain implants are also a way to analyse very intimate profiles of our health and physiological functions.
New generation insulin pumps are a game-changer for diabetics, where the pumps can be connected to an app to send data wirelessly for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. Like diabetes, asthma is another condition that impacts several lives across the world– connected inhalers can help such patients with the help of IoB.
Raising the bar, IoB is also used in Brain-computer interface, also known as brain mapping, where the system acquires brain signals, analyse them and map the brain activity, to help restore functions of patients who are facing disabilities related to neuromuscular pathways.
But not all IoB use cases are for medical reasons. Biohax, a bioengineering company, has gone one step further with embedding chips in more than 4,000 people primarily for convenience. Another case made headlines in 2017, is the US-based mobility company— Three Square Market, where more than 50 employees have an RFID microchip implanted in their body, which provides them access to the building without an employee card, and pay for items with a wave of their hand.
However, all these advancements raise serious questions about IoB— Is it really required to connect everything to the Internet? And if yes, do the data privacy and data protection policies are strong enough to deal with the risk implied by the same?
So, who governs the Internet of Bodies? Who ensures that the connected device or the implanted pacemaker doesn’t put the patient’s life in danger or the collected data about a patient’s heart disease are not being shared with third parties or used without any compromise.
This explosion of connectivity via the Internet of Bodies brings several security and safety challenges. Every connected thing or being is open to susceptible threats, said experts. According to reports, hackers have found 47 vulnerabilities affecting 23-IoT enabled items from 21 manufacturers last year.
One of the recognised examples of such a threat is the replacement of the former United States Vice President Dick Cheney’s WiFi-based defibrillator with one without the WiFi capacity, in order to avoid the fear of getting assassinated by a hacked device. In fact, reports mentioned that, in 2017, nearly five hundred thousand of pacemakers have been recalled by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for fixing the security issues with the firmware. Another significant case was the Mirai malware, a DDoS attack, where half a million of IoT devices were compromised.
The advancement in the Internet of Bodies will always bring up privacy concerns for users as well as the healthcare providers. The very connectedness of this technology can be used to create a dystopian society where all behaviour of the patient is tracked, every individual is under constant surveillance, and the data being used by third parties against you.
Given the possibility of abusing data, top leaders around the world have now started to discuss the ethical implications of this technology, and also aiming to create new regulatory guidelines around the data privacy on the framework of IoB.
The Indian government has recently spoken about the country’s ‘Data Protection Bill’ focusing on securing informed user consent for using any sort of data collected from consumers. The bill also mentions that the IoT developers will need to coordinate with the Data Protection Authority to develop practical guidelines to work around security.
According to Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, “Any data protection law should be technology agnostic. It must be based upon the element of free consent, and no abuse of consent beyond the permissible limits is allowed with requisite data protection authorities, and a fair mechanism for data processing.”
The European Union’s General Data Protection has also provided its consumers with more transparency about the usage of their personal data. To get this technology going, more such regulations are required that provide transparency and safety for our data.
The problem of such delays, as per statistics, is that the development and the adoption of this technology have outpaced the policymakers. In such a scenario, leaders are trying to catch the train of IoB with proper regulations and also trying to fix security issues.
Curtailing the expansion of IoB in the false pretext of data security and privacy could hamper the growth trajectory of the country. Therefore, policymakers should resolve regulatory and legal issues and create policies aiming to safeguard patients’ life. Government and leaders should take steps to ensure that patients’ bodies cannot be hacked, and new laws should also clearly emphasize the matters of ownership and usage.