We’re entering the age of the Internet of Bodies: an extension of the Internet of Things where humans are connected to devices that can be worn, implanted or swallowed in the name of human health. In fact, many people are already IoB-connected — the market for smartwatches alone is already worth $13 billion and set to grow by 32% to $18 billion by 2021. IoB devices collect vast amounts of physical data to create individual health profiles, allowing healthcare professionals to more effectively monitor and treat patients — even Covid-19 patients. However, this cutting-edge technology also raises serious privacy and legal concerns.
VivaLNK, a Silicon-Valley technology company, has designed a revolutionary smart thermometer that nurses are using to take the temperatures of patients diagnosed with Covid-19. A single sensor works to record the temperature of each individual patient, which therefore minimizes human contact and decreases the risk of spreading the virus. The data is then transferred to an observation dashboard. If the results come back abnormal, healthcare professionals are notified and can then take appropriate action. As smart thermometers collect data over time, this allows medical professionals to spot and analyze long-term trends with the ultimate aim of delivering improved treatment and care.
VivaLNK’s smart thermometer is just one example of IoB tech making waves in the healthcare world. For example, the Federal Drug Administration has already given the green light to the use of digital pills. In addition to medicine, digital pills contain tiny, edible sensors and computer chips. Once swallowed, they collect health data from the organs, which is then transmitted to the patient’s smartphone or other remote devices. Moreover, a smart chemotherapy pill is also currently in use; it provides patients with chemotherapy drugs, as well as sensors that capture and transmit health data to healthcare professionals. The data includes information on drug dosage and time, heart rate, and rest and activity.
Additionally, smart contact lenses are being developed to aid people with diabetes. These consist of sensors and chips able to monitor health data taken from the eye and its fluid. Smart contact lenses will be able to monitor a patient’s glucose levels without them needing to take blood tests throughout the day. Indeed, people with diabetes are tasked with a range of health-related responsibilities, including continually monitoring blood sugars and eating a healthy diet low in refined sugar. Patients must also take care to prevent common foot complications caused by diabetes. For example, nerve damage can lead to decreased blood flow to the feet, resulting in chronic pain. Smart contact lenses can make it easier for people with diabetes to manage their condition and stay healthy.
As with the Internet of Things, security concerns are a massive issue with the Internet of Bodies. And even worse, potential security breaches can have fatal consequences for patients. For example, in 2013, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney had his defibrillator switched for one without WiFi connection. It could otherwise have been hacked to assassinate him by electric shock. Similarly, data privacy is also a pivotal concern. Healthcare professionals won’t be the only ones with access to big data analytics — tech companies will too. Laws and regulations will need to be implemented to prevent private data being sold. Big data also has the potential to lead to discrimination. For example, insurance or employment may be withheld from an individual based on their IoB data.
Sandra Wachter and Brent Mittelstadt from the Oxford Internet Institute want data protection law updated with a focus on the reasons behind data processing. They’re in favor of the “right to reasonable inferences” — this means your data should only be used for reasonable and socially-acceptable inferences. Standards need to be implemented dictating when inferring information from someone’s data — including their past, present and future health — is either acceptable or invasive.
The IoB is welcoming us to a new era of improved healthcare monitoring and treatment. As IoB technology continues to evolve, new policies and laws will need to be put in place to ensure the responsible and fair use of this technology.