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

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:09 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

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."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    He's got something of a point that there's some potentially interesting stuff in this general area. A large part of the problem was that the original story touched on none of it. The other part of the problem was that this was still inherently a sub-Kevin-Warwick-esqe publicity stunt that didn't actually address any of the interesting stuff, it just hinted at it and grabbed a bit of attention.

    It's possible that you just can't do serious thoughtful journalism on the BBC website because the length of the stories is just to short to cover anything complex or develop any serious sort of argument. It would be a shame if that's the case, but if it is, it still doesn't mean that shallow superficial stories are a useful substitute.

    If you can do in-depth thoughtful pieces, it might be a good idea to go back to this and do one.

  • Comment number 2.

    A more interesting take might be that of our cars. Can you imaging a virus in the engine and breaks / steering controller. Quite literally the 'blue screen of death' could mean just that!

    The 'scientist'/self publicist found an interest way to get the sillier elements of the media to take notice of him and you fell for it!

    This is really very old hat indeed.

  • Comment number 3.

    Interestingly, I've been conducting some research in a similar vein - I've been attempting to expose a BBC Micro to the herpes virus. First bit of luck I have I'll let you write the story Rory.

  • Comment number 4.

    There's a sci-fi book about a similar subject ZERO:Time by Nathan McGrath. Infection by nano-particles.
    There's a rough and ready website on it. I think the author did quite a bit of research on the science in the book.

    I thought the 'infected by virus' headline was a bit cheeky, maybe sensationalist. They guys stuck a chip with a virus into him for goodness sake.

    I'm pretty sure there was an article a few months ago in new scientist about some guys who 'hacked' into an implant in someone's body. At least you should have looked into this Rory!

  • Comment number 5.

    I've been attempting to expose a BBC Micro to the herpes virus.

    I've known people stick all sorts of interesting things into a BBC Micro's expansion port, but that's a new one. Somehow I don't think Rory will be putting up video of that experiment.

  • Comment number 6.

    @ markmonks.

    Thanks for that, I nearly ended up with a cola based beverage all over my keyboard. :-D

    I have to admit my first reaction (And still my predominant attitude.) was "What a load of sensationalist twaddle!"

    Having said that, if anyone tries to implant me with a device with any Microsoft system on it, it'll be over my cold & dead penguin ^h^h^h^h^h^h^h body.

  • Comment number 7.

    This is just a research engineer winding up the press to get more exposure and really unless theres is more serious debate on the issue it doesnt deserve a mention.

    Perhaps if I take a photo of myself riding in a lorry tyre down a road you can print a story on me...first human/lorry hybrid...transformers are a reality!

    Or maybe a sensationalist story that the first hybrid being was in fact my dog fido that also has an identity chip under the skin.

  • Comment number 8.

    @ John_from_Hendon #2

    "A more interesting take might be that of our cars. Can you imaging a virus in the engine and breaks / steering controller. Quite literally the 'blue screen of death' could mean just that!"

    Already been done and reported on the BBC's website (I'm too lazy to fish out a link but it was the first thing I thought of when I saw this blog). At least with that article the people doing the tests admitted they were testing the theory of controlling the car with some form of virus, but admitted there was no way to surreptitiously get the virus onto the car...they had direct physical access and amended the car's ECU themselves. That's the point here...while the story about the car did dispel the scaremongering it was only by the actions of the person telling the story, not the BBC's interrogations. In this story as the scientist in question didn't volunteer the pertinent facts himself the story went out unchallenged. That is, to be fair, bad journalism.

  • Comment number 9.

    This illustrates perfectly why multi-disciplinary teams of people who do not understand each others' jargon end up writing science fiction stories.
    Getting a bunch of ivory-tower philosophers to wall-paper over the cracks just makes it even worse.
    This sort of thing gives science and philosophy a bad name, and reinforces the prejudices each has of the other.

    I would want to know what exactly was meant by 'virus' , 'device' etc, and if these mean something from what they mean today, then the goal posts are being quietly shifted.

    The fact is, I cannot catch a 'virus' from an implanted 'device' in any interesting way, any more than I can by watching TV (and don't even mention the word 'memes')

  • Comment number 10.

    Re cars - I think that's probably this story. It's actually a lot more serious than the implant nonsense. In the case of the car there are systems which actually execute code involved, rather than just storing data. While there's not much risk (at the moment) of them being able to 'infect' other systems it's quite possible for an attacker who does have physical access to the car (e.g. a mechanic or factory worker) to compromise things in a non-obvious manner, but still have a substantial effect.

  • Comment number 11.



    ...maybe he should have swallowed an iPad - no virus but fully controlled by Apple to be the perfect citizen in an (open) society.....

    ;)

  • Comment number 12.

    Yes, the initial headline might have been sensationalist, but the underlying principles need discussing now, so we don't store up problems for the future.

    The thought of a life-saving implanted device, such as a pacemaker or even an artificial heart, being infected by a computer virus is chilling. Especially as more and more embedded systems tend to use standard operating systems to underpin them.

    There is also the less likely risk of someone deliberately taking control of a device, perhaps to hold the person to ransom.

    Science fiction at the moment. But a lot of science fiction tends to end up as science fact eventually...

  • Comment number 13.

    I accept that I should have adopted a more sceptical tone

    Careful. That can often end in tears when science gets 'settled'.

  • Comment number 14.

    With University research funding drying up everywhere, this smacks of a publicity stunt to me.

    Kevin Warwick, also at the University of Reading, was implanting himself with these transponders over 10 years ago.

    And, I was implanting trolley wheels with these transponders - nearly 17 years ago - for customer tracking systems used by a couple of the UK’s largest supermarket retailers. As far as I know, no trolleys were ever infected, and no shoppers were attacked as a result.

  • Comment number 15.

    The point that this is something that could happen in the future DOES actually mean that it should be discussed now to avoid possible problems. I for one wouldn't want a Russian crime syndicate subverting my pacemaker's software in order to spread marketing messages via bluetooth to mobiles in range.
    With Craig Venter this week announcing a completely engineered artificial life how long will it be before these also are being subverted or created by organisations without the public's need at heart.

  • Comment number 16.

    Oh, look I connected my phone to a WiFi network, do I get a mention in the worlds press? Er no.

    Perhaps if I got the dog to eat it, that would make it "Important research".

    If I set the ring tone to a Kylie Minogue and called it would I get a Nobel prize for creating the first singing dog?

    This is just so trivial it beggers belief.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    I'm just wondering what would happen to me if a chip implanted within my body were to pick up all that spam for viagra and penis enlargements?

  • Comment number 19.

    The only viral interest seems to be the bad case of the gullability virus. It's the strain known as "It's a presss release, it must be interesting"

    @Jason;
    Only if the ringtone was:

    "I should be so lucky, lucky lucky lucky"

  • Comment number 20.

    Already been done and reported on the BBC's website (I'm too lazy to fish out a link but it was the first thing I thought of when I saw this blog). At least with that article the people doing the tests admitted they were testing the theory of controlling the car with some form of virus, but admitted there was no way to surreptitiously get the virus onto the car...they had direct physical access and amended the car's ECU themselves. That's the point here...while the story about the car did dispel the scaremongering it was only by the actions of the person telling the story, not the BBC's interrogations. In this story as the scientist in question didn't volunteer the pertinent facts himself the story went out unchallenged.

  • Comment number 21.

    I accept that I should have adopted a more sceptical tone Careful. That can often end in tears when science gets 'settled'.

 

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