A researcher from the UK's University of Reading has warned of possible future infection issues for recipients of medical implants. The cause for concern is not biological, though. Dr. Mark Gasson's disquiet relates to the fact that as implants become more sophisticated, the computerized systems running them could become prone to virus attack. And to prove his point, the good doctor purposely infected a chip implanted in his hand with a virus, which subsequently spread to an external communication system.
Last year, Dr Gasson of the University of Reading's School of Systems Engineering had a sophisticated Radio Frequency Identification chip inserted into his left hand "as part of research into human enhancement and the potential risks of implantable devices." He has been since using it to grant him access to University buildings and activate his mobile phone. It's also been used to track and log his movements.
Security threat or scare story?
In order to determine if such technology is prone to the same security threats suffered by computer systems, Dr. Gasson's chip was infected with a virus. The researcher found that the corruptive code was then passed onto the main system used to communicate with the chip. Had other devices been connected to the system, the infection might have spread. In summary, Dr. Gasson said the research showed "that implantable technology has developed to the point where implants are capable of communicating, storing and manipulating data. They are essentially mini computers. This means that, like mainstream computers, they can be infected by viruses and the technology will need to keep pace with this so that implants, including medical devices, can be safely used in the future."
Experts at Internet security firm Sophos, however, have accused Dr. Gasson of scaremongering. The company's Graham Cluley said, "Scientists should be responsible in how they present their research, rather than hyping up threats in order to get headlines. Any virus code on the RFID chip would be utterly incapable of running unless a serious security hole existed in the external device reading it. Predictions of pacemakers and cochlear implants being hit by virus infections is the very worst kind of scaremongering."
The results of the experiment are to be presented at next month's IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society in Australia.
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