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Scientist Becomes First Human 'Infected' With Computer Virus

As implantable medical device technology advances, so will potential risks, researcher warns

FRIDAY, May 28 (HealthDay News) -- Implantable devices, such as pacemakers, defibrillators and cochlear implants, are becoming vulnerable to "infection" with computer viruses, a researcher in England warns.

To prove his point, Mark Gasson, a scientist at the University of Reading's School of Systems Engineering, allowed himself to become "Exhibit A."

Gasson said he became the first person in the world to be infected with a computer virus after he "contaminated" a high-end radio frequency identification (RFID) computer chip -- the kind often used as a security tag in stores to prevent theft -- which he had implanted into his left hand.

The point, Gasson explained, was to draw attention to the risks involved with the use of increasingly sophisticated implantable medical device technology.

"Our research shows that implantable technology has developed to the point where implants are capable of communicating, storing and manipulating data," he said in a university news release. "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 is scheduled to present his findings at the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, held June 7 to 9 in Australia, for which he also will serve as chairman.

The chip Gasson had implanted enabled him to access his place of work and his cell phone, as well as allowing others to track and profile his movements.

But once "infected," the chip disrupted the proper functioning of the mainframe system with which it had been communicating, and would have done the same to any other device that might have been similarly hooked up to the network, he said.

"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," Gasson said.

"Much like people with medical implants, after a year of having the implant, I very much feel that it is part of my body," he added. "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."

More information

For more on implantable devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

-- Alan Mozes

SOURCE: University of Reading, news release, May 26, 2010

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