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Regulating Internet of Bodies technology

ZHANG PENG | 2020-12-31
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

IoB devices could monitor, analyze and even modify human bodies and behavior, through sensors attached to, implanted within, or ingested into human bodies. Photo: FILE

With the advent of an era of artificial intelligence, human-computer collaborations and interactions are deepening. The Internet of Bodies (IoB) is an emerging technology which links networks of human bodies to data through connected sensors. The history of science and technology shows that the emergence of a new technology often offers enormous social and health benefits, but also raises new challenges with technology governance. 
New concept
As a new concept, IoB is a result of the increasing entanglement of the Internet of Things (IoT) with human bodies. IoB is a new achievement in the development of human-computer interaction technology. Its emergence and fast expansion indicates that human technology has advanced from the internet to IoT and beyond, into to IoB. Like IoT, the foundation and core of IoB is the internet. As a result, IoB devices have two basic features: computing and communicative functions.
Today, IoB devices come in many forms and are mostly used in medical scenarios, such as implantable pacemakers, ingestible digital pills, and wearable limbs. In the field of healthcare, cloud technology can be used to analyze human health by connecting attached medical devices, semi-implantable medical devices, and implantable medical devices to the internet, thus facilitating medical diagnosis.
The development of IoB technology has tackled many thorny issues in human medical history. It can generate tremendous amounts of biometric and human behavioral data about the human body by invasive and non-invasive means. For example, implantable devices such as hearing or eyesight aids/augmenting devices can enhance bodily functions and improve patients’ life quality. In the case of wearables and body proximity technologies, such as fitness tracking devices, these can offer timely warnings. In the future, IoB devices are expected to be widely used for the elderly and patients with heart diseases. 
In addition to medical scenarios, IoB devices are increasingly applied across different sectors, from fitness and health management, to employment settings, and entertainment. The accelerating convergence of consumer devices and health/medical devices also shows that the line between medical and non-medical IoB devices is blurring.
Risks associated with IoB
As of today, IoB technology is extensively collecting our data through a variety of medical devices, fitness tracking devices, and other smart consumer devices that stay in proximity to the human body, or embedded devices that are deployed in enterprise, educational, and recreational scenarios. IoB devices analyze this abundance of data to advance preventive care, precision medicine, and enhance workplace safety. However, while bringing social benefits, IoB technology poses risks to personal health, network security, and ethics.
To start with, IoB technology has achieved an impressive degree of development, but it is undeniably far from perfect. It has potential  harm to human health. Specifically, electromagnetic radiation causes damage. Even devices attached to the body produce corresponding electromagnetic and other types of radiation. Studies have shown that low-frequency electromagnetic radiation causes vortices that interfere with human health, while high-frequency electromagnetic radiation directly disturbs the central nervous system. 
A hardware malfunction could cause abnormal damage. For example, if an abnormal rupture occurs in an implanted device, it may follow the blood circulation pattern, travel to the heart, major arteries, and cause an embolism, which could be catastrophic and fatal. 
Inaccurate data analysis may also happen, and lead to false diagnoses. At present, IoB technology is still in its infancy, there is a certain possibility of data analysis misdiagnosis, false alarms and other incidents.
Next, there is increasing awareness of the vulnerability of wearables and medical IoB devices to hacking and cyberattacks, which expose users to potential physical harm and privacy risks.
IoB devices need to connect wirelessly with data collection terminals to transmit information to the cloud. In this process, hackers may exploit the opportunity, and steal information or even tamper with users' devices remotely, endangering their physical health via high temperatures created by excessive activity. 
In addition, privacy is one major factor affecting consumers' trust and adoption of IoB devices. Increasing adoption of IoB devices beyond traditional medical facilities also raises concerns about security and privacy. Data has become an important asset in our daily lives. Some business insiders and hackers may steal users’ information to improperly acquire gains.
The risk of non-standard data use is also looming. Compared with large companies, consumers and private users are at a disadvantage. In the absence of safeguards against data abuse, it is possible for companies to breach the boundaries of legal data collection. 
In the era of artificial intelligence, the value preferences of enterprises or engineers may inflict risks for individuals. For example, social prejudice caused by algorithmic discrimination happens frequently nowadays. IoB technology may aggravate such ethical and moral hazards. IoB technology has a similar function to genetic technology, in terms of directly enhancing individual capabilities. While bringing the potential to prevent and cure a large number of diseases, it could also enhance or alter man’s natural state, which could lead to further social inequality. 
Some IoB devices serve the purpose of empowering individuals. However, when humans become dependent on machines, their natural abilities are diminished. In extreme cases, users may lose some of their social capacity if an IoB device fails.
In addition to health analysis, IoB technology can also position and track the locations of users. Although this may be convenient, it comes at the expense of individual freedom. For example, the adoption of wearables and IoB devices in employment scenarios creates new concerns about employee privacy and workplace surveillance. With employers using devices and algorithms to monitor and direct employees' movements, communication and behavioral patterns, employees are at risk of losing freedom.
Possible solutions
Given the risks brought forth by IoB technology, we should be prudent and strive to come up with solutions from the perspectives of technological development, legal regulation, and moral appeals.
As IoB devices increasingly evolve in their connections with human bodies, a robust and consistent system of governance is needed to address the risks of expanding IoB technology. The fundamental solution to the possible risks to human health caused by IoB technology is to further advance technology and connect it to governance. It is necessary to promote the integrated development of IoB technology with big data, cloud computing, and other technology at the government level. The government also needs to build a sound governance system and strictly stipulate factory standards for IoB devices to prevent health risks caused by hardware and software failures. 
Enterprises involved need to increase investment in scientific research. In view of electromagnetic radiation, hardware and software defects, and other problems existing in IoB devices, enterprises need to innovate and tackle these challenges in a targeted manner. 
Data protection regulations need to be strengthened, to clarify the illegal activities pertinent to IoB technology. Punishment for cyberattacks, illegal theft and abuse of users' personal information should be made clear in a legal framework. Moreover, the technical standards for secure encryption, data extraction, and data use should be improved based on the characteristics of IoB products. 
Responsible use of technology should respect users' rights and social ethics. In order to fully realize the social benefits of IoB technology, users should be empowered with the legal rights of a data subject and a supporting system to execute those rights. This requires a clearer definition of data ownership and better control of users’ own data. Users should be supported with knowledge of how their data is used, and the ability to access and correct their information, including the means to address unfair uses.
At the same time, it is necessary to prevent any inequality that may result from the excessive use of IoB technology by the rich. People should learn about the harm of overreliance on IoB devices and enhance their consciousness of human subjectivity. There also should be resistance at the social level to activities such as the use of IoB devices to track employee movements for management purposes.
Zhang Peng is from the School of Political Science and Public Administration at East China University of Political Science and Law.
Edited by YANG XUE