- We’re entering the era of the “Internet of Bodies”: collecting our physical data via a range of devices that can be implanted, swallowed or worn.
- The result is a huge amount of health-related data that could improve human wellbeing around the world, and prove crucial in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
- But a number of risks and challenges must be addressed to realize the potential of this technology, from privacy issues to practical hurdles.
Connecting our bodies
As futuristic as the Internet of Bodies may seem, many people are already connected to it through wearable devices. The smartwatch segment alone is estimated as around $18 billion. Smart toothbrushes and even hairbrushes can also let people track patterns in their personal care and behaviour.
For health professionals, the Internet of Bodies opens the gate to a new era of effective monitoring and treatment.
In 2017, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration approved the first use of digital pills in the United States. Digital pills contain tiny, ingestible sensors, as well as medicine. Once swallowed, the sensor is activated in the patient’s stomach and transmits data to their smartphone or other devices.
In 2018, Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare provider in California, started a virtual rehab program for patients recovering from heart attacks. The patients shared their data with their care providers through a smartwatch, allowing for better monitoring and a closer, more continuous relationship between patient and doctor. Thanks to this innovation, the completion rate of the rehab program rose from less than 50% to 87%, accompanied by a fall in the readmission rate and programme cost.
The deluge of data collected through such technologies is advancing our understanding of how human behaviour, lifestyle and environmental conditions affect our health. It has also expanded the notion of healthcare beyond the hospital or surgery and into everyday life. This could prove crucial in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Keeping track of symptoms could help us stop the spread of infection, and quickly detect new cases. Researchers are investigating whether data gathered from smartwatches and similar devices can be used as viral infection alerts by tracking the user’s heart rate and breathing.
At the same time, this complex and evolving technology raises new regulatory challenges.
In the 20th century, wireless technology integrated with the human body was nothing more than science fiction. But today, Wi-Fi connected devices like heart rate monitors and sleep trackers have become common parts of American life. How has bionic technology evolved so quickly from science fiction to reality? And what could this Internet of Bodies mean for our lives moving forward? RAND researchers are studying this phenomenon and what consumers and policymakers need to know as we veer into uncharted territory.
Mary Lee, Mathematician; Fellow, RAND Center for Global Risk and Security
The Internet of Bodies, or IoB, is actually an ecosystem. It’s a bunch of devices that are connected to the Internet that contain software and that either collect personal health data about you or can alter the body’s function. We think of the Internet of Bodies as this collection of all these devices, as well as all the data that the devices are gathering about you. And in health care, Internet of Bodies has been around for quite a while. With the advent of the Internet, it makes a lot of sense to connect your pacemaker to the Internet so that your doctor can be automatically notified if something weird happens, if there’s an anomaly. It’s natural in a lot of ways to want to understand more about your body, how it functions, how well it’s doing.
IoB devices could revolutionize health care. Unprecedented amounts of personal health data could inform treatment plans that are completely tailored to a patient’s needs.
There are pills now that have an electronic sensor that let a health care provider know whether you have taken the medication. Other things, like precision medicine, so precision medicine is the idea of creating pharmaceuticals or treatment specifically for your body, for your personalized treatment. And I think IoB could really help with that because nowadays a lot of health care is based more on average reactions, whereas with data from IoB devices, you might be able to really more precisely treat a certain disease.
But the Internet of Bodies won’t be a cure-all. In fact, the largely unregulated market poses risks to the uniquely sensitive data these devices collect.
First of all, there’s the cyber risk of an actor potentially hacking into the system, whatever it might be. There’s the privacy risk of all this data that’s being collected, and the regulations about that data are really murky at the moment. And so there’s not a lot of clarity into who owns the data, what happens to it, who it gets sold to, how it’s being used. And there’s even potentially national security and global security risks.
A few examples of these risks have already played out in real life. For instance, in 2018, highly sensitive information about U.S. military activity and base locations was inadvertently revealed by soldiers’ fitness trackers. So this is a pivotal moment. What can we do to make sure we reap the potential benefits of the Internet of Bodies without risking our privacy, security, and personal autonomy?
Consumers should be wary of IoB devices because, as it’s becoming more and more popular, all of this intimate data is being collected, arguably more intimate data than we’ve ever really recorded before. There’s no clarity on what is being done with that data. You know, with an old mechanical pacemaker, there’s no data that was being collected and stored, and, you know, you could look at a history of someone’s heart rhythms.
Because policy tends to lag behind innovative technologies like this, it’s probably up to the consumers and to the health care patients to really be aware of the devices that they’re using and what is happening to their data and to know what the regulations are in their particular state, because it does vary so much state by state. Even if you think you’re not interesting or that nothing will happen with your data, there are a lot of unknowns that I think we need to be careful about.