Last call to control the Internet of Bodies

Photo: World Economic Forum

Smartwatches and fitbits, smart contact lenses, digital chemotherapy pills, brain computer interfaces… The Internet of Bodies (IoB) is here and the challenges of technology governance are high, says the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF) in a report published last week in collaboration with McGill University.

Why it matters. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the ongoing process of Internet entering our bodies. Benefits and risks of more or less invasive actions now reveal themselves more clearly. Sensors are attached to, implanted within or ingested into human bodies to analyse but also modify behaviours. Devices are not only connected to the Internet, it is now our body that is directly connected to a network.

The technologies focus on medical scenarios but can also be found on a larger scale in fitness and entertainment applications. Biometric and human behavioural data is collected for personal use. Research and industry are being fed with a mass of information. The human body is now a connected data platform. You liked the Internet of Things? You will adore the Internet of Bodies.

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Examples of Internet of Bodies technologies, WEF (2020)

Many questions arise: how can privacy be ensured? Are there any risks? What ethical and legal issues need to be addressed, and what strategies of governance will be defined to monitor the devices and prevent abuse of sensitive data?

The WEF, under the lead of McGill University Faculty Fellow at the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and lead author of the report, Xiao Liu, recommends careful attention to enforce the potential of IoB technologies and navigate among risks and opportunities.

In other words, it requires a responsible and ethical system of governance. This means enhanced privacy within an optimal framework of decision-making and regulations whilst adopting a responsible and ethical approach. Risks should be known and rights respected. To be efficient, it needs to cover both medical and non-medical fields and involve not only policy makers but also industrial groups, multistakeholders, civil society, users and citizens.

A complex regulatory framework. Data governance implies a regulatory framework, that not only focuses on the way data is collected but also how it is then dealt with once it is generated and processed. Moreover, the difficulty resides in the qualification of “sensitive” or “personal” data. What might be the case in one situation, might be different in another, knowing that data regulations significantly diverge from one sector to another, and even more so from one country to another.

In Europe, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR) is effective since 2018. It applies to the collection, transfer and processing of personal data, and specifically addresses the health issues in its principles. In addition, the use of personal data for discriminatory decisions can be prevented with a series of Directives on racial and gender equality, or gender access to goods and services.

Switzerland also has its set of rules, the Federal Act of Data Protection. The Art. 3 in particular defines its scope of application and applies to sensitive data, including health.

Data-enabled social benefits. They are real and part of the growing success of IoB technologies. The number of exhibitors in health technologies at the 2020 Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas was for example up by 25% earlier this year. Among the guests, the EPFL Nanolab spin-off, Xsensio, received an innovation award for its “Lab-on-skin” chip, measuring biomarkers at the surface of the skin. One example among many.

IoB technologies are transforming research and providing custom-made solutions.

  • Remote patient tracking and reduction of cross infection: continuous monitoring of body vital signs is a helpful tool for healthcare providers. More recently, devices have been used to fight COVID-19 outbreaks.

  • Patient engagement and healthy lifestyle: the healthcare program is extended beyond the traditional clinic. A smartwatch monitors the activity ensuring a regular interaction with healthcare providers.

  • Preventive care and precision medicine: diseases can be detected and treated early. Moreover, research is improved by linking lifestyle and environmental data with genetic and biological data.

  • Enhanced workplace safety: in certain workplaces, such as mines, construction sites or factories, risks are reduced. Location of workers, environmental risks or fatigue can be monitored through various technologies.

Identified risks. Given the high level of personal health and behavioural data collected, risks of misuse are inevitable. The WEF report identifies 3 main aspects that might interfere with an optimal operation.

  • Interoperability and data accuracy: as platforms, processes and security are not standardized, the use of data from different devices is constrained. Moreover, as medical and non-medical devices are subject to different approval regulations, the risk of inaccurate self-treatment without medical supervision and possible unfortunate consequences is high.

  • Geolocation and privacy: the question has arisen in the use of COVID-19 tracking devices. The use of geolocation data and commuting patterns questions and worries, if used for other purposes.

  • Discrimination and fairness in data analytics: data collected from IoB devices can be used to make important decisions in different areas such as insurance, employment, finance, education, social services… If incomplete or mixed with other data (e.g. shopping habits), profiling of individuals and groups can result in biased policies and decision-making.

The full potential. The WEF chooses to tackle new challenges in IoB governance, because it is as urgent as it is evolving rapidly:

“We stand at the beginning of an important public dialogue that will have major implications for public health, safety and the global economy and may also ultimately challenge how we think about our bodies and what it means to be human.”

With a solid and responsible system of governance, a special attention to data protection, its regulatory framework and related technology, the full potential of Internet of Bodies could be revealed.