Amanda Maxwell

Oct 10th 2020

A Living, Breathing Internet of Things All Around You


Right now, we’re fully immersed in the Internet of Things (IoT), where our handheld devices and smart gadgets chatter away to each other across the wireless world. And soon it won’t be just the smartphone in your hand that’s joining in; with the rise of wireless-enabled implantable medical devices (IMDs), it will be you that’s joining in via the internet of bodies (IoB).

Gathering Health Data on the Inside

Breakthroughs in tech innovation, materials fabrication and wireless connectivity are bringing scalability and data collection to IMDs or implantables. Now it’s possible to swallow a smart pill for internal diagnostics or upload data from a pacemaker or artificial organ. Distinct from non-invasive sensors, implantables gather data from within the body, either temporarily as a smart pill or longer term as a surgically installed device. Yahoo Finance further describes implantables as either internal (smart pills, pacemakers, cochlear implants) or embedded, where the connection is hardwired and “a human body has a real time connection to a remote machine with live updates.”

Connectedness Through the Internet of Things

Advances in the speed of data transmission, especially with the onset of new 5G capacity, means that IMDs can upload data in real time. Since many of us now carry a cellphone, “reading” these devices and connecting them with the internet of bodies is relatively straightforward.

The Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) notes that connectedness benefits both medical providers and patients. Being able to monitor a patient in detail throughout the day could pick up subtle diagnostic signs that are often missed in clinical examination since they happen only sporadically. For patients, implantable medical devices could alert them well before symptoms are noticeable, prompting them to respond to low blood glucose, for example. Remote monitoring could benefit those with chronic diseases and also vulnerable populations such as the elderly.

Internal devices laden with sensors can also help diagnostics gather more information closer to the source. An Internet of Business report describes how ingestible sensors for gastrointestinal bleeds — bacteria on a chip — respond to the presence of blood with luminescence. On-board sensors then pick up signal and relay it wirelessly to the diagnostic team.

The devices may also behave semi-autonomously. Futurism reports on a brain implant that collects data on electrical activity in real-time data collection. When it detects abnormal activity, the device responds by sending out electrical stimulation that control seizures and Parkinson’s disease.

New Atlas describes an artificial pancreas system for managing Type I diabetes. The system comprises an insulin pump linked with a subcutaneous sensor that links with a smartphone app for monitoring. Through artificial intelligence, it “learns” about its user to refine insulin delivery for better glucose control.

Whose Data Is It Anyway?

The amount of data generated daily, hourly from all these IoT and IoB devices is growing rapidly, and with it, new questions about cybersecurity and individual privacy. More than who has ownership of the data, which agency should oversee regulation of IMDs and implantables? The Wall Street Journal notes that some devices might be labeled for lifestyle use rather than medical, meaning that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no influence on them. Oversight would therefore be up to the Federal Trade Commission.

The growing internet of bodies will create more and more data, but who should harvest it? For diagnostic purposes, clinicians and medical providers need the data for patient care, but should the information also be available to device manufacturers, researchers and federal agents?

Or lawyers? According to the Washington Post, pacemaker data was used to convict in a case of arson. Can your personal data from internal sensors be used to monitor drug compliance, for example? There are big questions about personal autonomy and the internet of bodies. Could a sensor-laden contact lens be used to snoop on what you are looking at?

Cybersecurity for Wired Bodies

Connectedness also raises questions on cybersecurity for wired bodies. Hacking into wireless signals is a potential risk for IMDs that could allow access to data streams or to control a device. Researchers take this potential threat very seriously and are exploring ways to lock down security.

A team at Purdue is investigating ways to cut down the physical range of signals coming from IoB devices within the body to prevent them from being hacked remotely. The new technology cuts down on the range of emissions from meters to only a centimeter, meaning that signals are more difficult to intercept. The tech in development will also help doctors re-program devices without surgery.

In reviewing the types of cyberattack possible, a journal article in The Expert Review of Medical Devices also lists steps that could boost security. Enabling multi-factor authentication and ensuring clinical base station security are two simple but effective steps. As IMDs advance and become more prevalent, cyberattacks and malware will help manufacturers issue timely security updates to keep connected bodies a step ahead.