Reading University researcher Dr Mark Gasson has been accused of scaremongering after he claimed to have become the first human to be infected with a computer virus.
For reasons that probably have as much to do with publicity as hard science, Gasson set out to prove the principle of human-machine virus transmission by infecting an RFID chip which was then implanted in his hand. The virus, used to pass through security doors, was able to transmit this infected code to another chip outside his body.
The experiment was always guaranteed to attract some criticism, and sure enough malware expert Graham Cluley of Sophos has now fired the first shot.
"Scientists should be responsible in how they present their research, rather than hyping up threats in order to get headlines," said Cluley. "Any virus code on the RFID chip would be utterly incapable of running unless a serious security hole existed in the external device reading it.”
Gasson’s view is that the demo underlines the vulnerability of chip implants.
"With the benefits of this type of technology come risks. We may improve ourselves in some way but much like the improvements with other technologies, mobile phones for example, they become vulnerable to risks, such as security problems and computer viruses," Gasson told the BBC in the report that broke the story.
The problem is that what Gasson has demonstrated is an obvious one that probably requires no proof-of-concept. Technology implanted in humans is no less vulnerable than the same technology not implanted in humans. What matters is showing vulnerabilities in technology that is actually being used.
"The main progress that appears to have been made from such research is not a contribution to computer security, but a full-proof method of ensuring that university staff don't forget their office door pass in the morning,” shoots back Cluley. “Predictions of pacemakers and cochlear implants being hit by virus infections is the very worst kind of scaremongering."
Reading University has a long track record in eccentric and controversial computer-human research going back as far as Professor Kevin Warwick, who in 1999 had chips implanted in his forearm to carry out a range of everyday tasks such as turning on lights.
Warwick made the mistake of pompously claiming to be the ‘world’s first cyborg’ to journalists, for which he was relentlessly mocked as a figure of fun, ‘Captain Cyborg’. At least Gasson can’t say he wasn’t warned.