The Internet of Bodies Will Change Everything, for Better or Worse

Rand Corporation


The rise of devices that connect the human body to the web is accelerating rapidly. This Internet of Bodies could revolutionize health care and improve our quality of life. But without appropriate guardrails, it could also jeopardize our most intimate personal information and introduce several ethical concerns.

Ross Compton was there when a fire ravaged his $400,000 home in Middletown, Ohio, in September 2016. Fortunately, Compton told investigators, he was able to stuff a few bags with several possessions—including the charger for an external heart pump he needed to survive—before shattering a window with his cane and escaping.

But as the smoke cleared, police began to suspect that Compton’s story was a fabrication.

His statements were inconsistent. The rubble smelled of gasoline. And it seemed implausible that someone fleeing a burning house—especially someone with a medical condition like Compton’s—could execute such a complex escape plan.

Eventually, investigators were able to indict Compton on felony charges of aggravated arson and insurance fraud. Their star witness? His pacemaker.

Police obtained a warrant to retrieve data on Compton’s heart activity before, during, and after the fire. After reviewing this information, a cardiologist concluded that it was “highly improbable” Compton would’ve been able to escape the flames so quickly, while lugging so many belongings.

Compton pleaded not guilty. His attorney argued that the pacemaker data should be thrown out; including it would violate doctor-patient privilege and Compton’s constitutional right to privacy, the lawyer said.

The case was strange, arguably sad, and fraught with difficult questions. Regardless of whether Compton really torched his house, should a life-saving device inside someone’s body be part of a case that might put them behind bars?

We may not know the answer for some time. Compton passed away in July at the age of 62, leaving his case—and whatever precedent it might have set—unresolved.

This may seem like a one-of-a-kind chain of events, an aberration. But as industries usher in a new era of devices that track personal information by leveraging the internet and the human body in equal measure, it won’t be the last.

This type of technology, appropriately dubbed the Internet of Bodies (IoB), has the potential to improve our lives in countless ways. But the risks are just as legion. A new RAND study explores the Internet of Bodies, identifying implications for policy that could help maximize the IoB’s upside while mitigating these risks.

“When it comes to regulating IoB, it’s the Wild West,” said Mary Lee, a mathematician at RAND and lead author of the study.

“There are many benefits to these technologies that some consider too great to be slowed down by policy. But we need to have a larger discussion about what those benefits will cost us—and how we might avoid some of the risk altogether.”

What Is the Internet of Bodies?

Internet-connected devices like smart thermostats, voice-activated assistants, and web-enabled refrigerators have become ubiquitous in American homes. These technologies are part of the Internet of Things (IoT), which has flourished in recent years as consumers and businesses flock to smart devices for convenience, efficiency, and, in many cases, fun.

Internet of Bodies technologies fall under the broader IoT umbrella. But as the name suggests, IoB devices introduce an even more intimate interplay between humans and gadgets. IoB devices monitor the human body, collect health metrics and other personal information, and transmit those data over the internet. Many devices, such as fitness trackers, are already in use.

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