BioHacking...The Perils of Progress

Feb 21, 2014 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
BioHacking...The Perils of Progress

image by: Saksham Choudhary

Computer hacking has taken on a new dimension...biohacking and the target is you

If Plato were brought up to speed on the 21st century, he might think twice about labeling necessity as the mother of invention, because in today's world it seems opportunity is at least as driving a force.

A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News frames the issue by examining at the computerization of people, a seemingly sci-fi phenomenon that is already becoming fact. As a case in point, the article looks at Amal Graafstra, co-founder of gadgetry firm Dangerous Things.

The gadgetry Dangerous Things sells is not run-of-mill (yet); rather, it focuses on "biohacking" products—things you implant in your body to achieve various ends. Graafstra is a living advertisement for biohacking, having his hands implanted with radio-frequency identifiers that allow him to unlock his car, computer, etc., with merely a wave.

At first glance they may seem to increase convenience.  Like everyone else, I've become enraged when attempt after attempt to remember my password for this or that Website was rejected.  Wouldn't it be better if the damn thing could just recognize me and let me get on with my cyberlife?

But before too many of us get on the bandwagon of biological alteration for the sake of convenience, we should confront the second half of Dangerous Things' portmanteau: hacking.

It may have been big news that Target was hacked—using software developed by a 17-year-old—to the tune of compromising the personal and financial data of as many as 110 million customers, but there's nothing new about this kind of cybercriminality. Nor is there anything new about criminals exploiting whatever new technology comes down the pike. "The criminal underground is highly innovative and often acts as an early adopter of emerging technologies," writes Marc Goodman, chair for Policy, Law, and Ethics at Singularity University. He continues:

As a young police officer, I observed gang members and drug dealers using beepers and mobile phones long before they were in common use by the general public. […] We are at the dawn of an exponentially advancing technological arms race between people who are using technology for good and those who are using it for ill. Though such battles have gone on since the beginning of time, what has changed is the pace of innovation. New technologies and capabilities are emerging so quickly, it becomes increasingly likely they will outpace the capabilities of public safety officials to respond.

In a 2011 TEDx talk entitled "All your devices can be hacked," Johns Hopkins Professor Avi Rubin, a renowned expert in systems and network security, explored the possibility of cybercriminals hacking into implanted computerized device. For example, he reported on experiments demonstrating that it would be possible remotely to induce ventricular fibrillation in the recipient of a computerized pacemaker.

"[W]ithout understand what attackers can do and the security risks from the beginning," Rubin said while discussing computerized implanted devices, "there's a lot of danger in this."

The benefits of computerization are innumerable. And even if the dangers outweigh the benefits—which is not the thesis of the article—the genie is out of the bottle.  We live in the Computer Age.  Cars will continue to be become increasingly computerized, even though (as Rubin documented in another part of his talk) that leaves the driver vulnerable to having (e.g.) her brakes disabled by a hacker.

Perhaps progress, at least some progress, comes at a price. With such a tradeoff in mind, we might consider whether a given piece of progress is clearly a net gain before we implement it.

However backward the Amish seem to most of us, perhaps their skepticism of technology might serve as a caveat to us tech-loving Americans. As opposed to popular perception, the Amish don't automatically reject all technology; rather, they resist bringing a technology into their lives unless they see a clear benefit that comes without an accompanying disruption to their ethos. Last fall NPR reported on an Amish man who uses voicemail, a propane-powered forklift, hydraulic-powered saws, cordless drills, and a refrigerated tank where milk from dairy cows is stored. From the report:

The difference between Amish people and most other Americans is the deliberation that takes place before deciding whether to embrace a new technology. Many Americans assume newer technology is always better, and perhaps even inherently good.

"The Amish don't buy that," says Donald Kraybill, professor at Elizabethtown College and co-author of The Amish. "They're more cautious, more suspicious, wondering: 'Is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?'"

While it may be a convenience to have a chip in your hand that enables you to open your front door with a wave of your hand, at this juncture in history (at least), I prefer to err on the side of not having anything inorganic inserted into my body unless I really, really need it. Nor am I crazy about opening up access to my home to every criminally entrepreneurial young punk with some programming skill. 

Instead, I've got this little metal thing called a key, and it seems to do the trick just fine.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

Introducing Stitches!

Your Path to Meaningful Connections in the World of Health and Medicine
Connect, Collaborate, and Engage!

Coming Soon - Stitches, the innovative chat app from the creators of HWN. Join meaningful conversations on health and medical topics. Share text, images, and videos seamlessly. Connect directly within HWN's topic pages and articles.

Be the first to know when Stitches starts accepting users

The Latest from Moore Lowdown

Want to Reduce World Hunger? Eat Less Meat (Especially Beef)
Want to Reduce World Hunger? Eat Less Meat (Especially Beef)

America is one of the world leaders in per capita meat consumption—which means we’re also one of the most inefficient users of land and other resources when it comes to feeding people.

Can One Simple Change Double Organ Donation?
Can One Simple Change Double Organ Donation?

Die in the USA, and your organs go to waste unless you’ve opted in to the organ donation problem. But it doesn’t have to be this way—and in many countries, it isn’t.

Dedicated Bus Lanes: The Easiest Way to Improve Public Transit
Dedicated Bus Lanes: The Easiest Way to Improve Public Transit

The buses are there. The roadways are there. All that’s needed to make bus travel better⎯and therefore more viable⎯is the will to give them their own lane once in a while.

Stay Connected