Our world is ever changing and ever evolving. Some changes get buried in obscurity but some things become more evident. Partly because they are so much more interesting than others and partly because they take us to a future we have been dreaming and hearing about since we were kids.
Similarly, from the realms of science fiction, a piece of news from BBC just found its way into reality: A man infected himself with a computer virus. Take note that Dr. Mark Gasson did it deliberately! Gasson, a cybernetics expert at the University of Reading, embedded a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip under his skin and infected this chip with a computer virus.
RFID tags have primarily been used for tagging animals in the wild. These tags contain packets of information about the animals and scientists use this information for cross-referencing their studies. Gassons’s RFID tag however belongs to a new breed of tags that are more complicated. For example, his tag provides security clearance and gives him access to his building in the University of Reading. It also gives him access to his mobile phone.
Gasson compared the RFID tag to a mini-computer. His experiment delves into the susceptibility of implanted devices to computer viruses. To do that, Gasson with the help of his colleagues, uploaded a benign computer virus in to his implanted device. His study shows that implanted devices are vulnerable to outside attacks as much as any other computer. What more, the virus can replicate and upload itself to other RFID tags if one of Gasson’s colleagues swipes his own ID tag.
Although Gasson can’t literally get sick from this virus, the study proves that there are threats present for implanted devices. Viruses can be transferred and replicated wirelessly. The question of security now once again looms over the use of RFID tags and implanted devices. The technology utilized in pacemakers, cochlear implants and deep brain stimulators are akin to the wireless device under Gasson’s skin. Anyone with malicious intent can develop a virus to target these devices putting the health of end users in danger.
A few weeks ago, the vulnerability of car computers to computer viruses was exposed. A team of researchers from the University of California San Diego and University of Washington reported the risks of automotive embedded system. The same question was raised regarding the safety of computer enabled cars from unknown outside manipulation. The risks of someone taking control of the breaks or the GPS location system puts the driver at risk.
In the science fiction vein, the future of Bionic Woman, Kit the Car and the Terminator seems bleak if these risks are not addressed. Hackers will repeatedly try to prove themselves better than other programmers. And until there are vulnerabilities and bugs to take advantage of technology will remain a slave to a few people who have the knowledge “to control” it.
According to a report by Network World, Sophos, a network security vendor has downplayed the significance of Gasson’s research. Graham Cluley, a Senior Security Consultant at Sophos warns scientists of creating hype about a g a problem to get headlines to present their studies. He further states that malicious code can only run if there were security problems with the external reading device itself. According to Cluley, RFID chips have more data “read from them, rather than executed”. He blatantly called it “scaremongering”.
As much as these scientists and experts want to bicker about the validity of their research, it is the ordinary users of these devices who will be affected if there is any truth to the research. In today’s world it is important to tell facts in a manner that is not sugar coated in jargon.