Scientist infects himself with computer virus

26 May 2010

A UK scientist has become the first ever human to be infected by a computer virus after implanting a contaminated computer chip into his arm.

Dr Mark Gasson is a senior research fellow with the Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group at the University of Reading and already has the chip embedded in his arm for research purposes.

The chip is a high-end Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), similar to the kind implanted in animals for tracking purposes; embedded in his arm it interacts with other electronics devices around him, acting as an ID for opening doors and unlocking his mobile phone.

Risks for medical devices

As part of his research, Gasson placed a virus on the chip and verified that it could pass the virus onto other devices. This, he says, highlights the risk that future medical implants, such as pacemakers, that would connect to external devices and systems could be maliciously interfered with if someone gained access.

“By infecting my own implant with a computer virus we have demonstrated how advanced these technologies are becoming and also had a glimpse at the problems of tomorrow.

“Much like people with medical implants, after a year of having the implant, I very much feel that it is part of my body. While it is exciting to be the first person to become infected by a computer virus in this way, I found it a surprisingly violating experience because the implant is so intimately connected to me but the situation is potentially out of my control,” said Gasson.

Implantable technology can be hacked

He refers to devices such as medical alert bracelets that are already in use in the US – they can be scanned to pull up details of the person’s medical history. This could potentially be hacked or infected.

“Our research shows that implantable technology has developed to the point where implants are capable of communicating, storing and manipulating data,” he said.

“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.”

Gasson also reckons that implantable technologies could possibly become as socially acceptable and mainstream as mobile phones.