Cyber-Terrorism: E-WWIII? (Post 8 of 8)

TOPIC 8: Cybernetic Enhancements—The Future is Now

As we have covered the landscape of the origins and the current state of cyber-terrorism, this final post will look toward the frightening possibilities in the future. What will the future hold for cyber-terrorism? How much more can technology assist in keeping us plugged in? While it might seem like this topic was plucked from the box office, the area of Cybernetic Enhancements is quite real and is allowing “biohackers” to take form. The next generation of cyber-terrorism may not come in the form of a loosely-knit group of hackers attempting to change political policy with coordinated DDoS attacks. Rather, it could be one man who looks not unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, with a strategically placed USB drive containing a virus.

USB finger

Meet Henri Bergius. Bergius, who lost his finger in a motorcycle accident, joined the legions of so-called biohackers. After he lost his finger, he told his doctors that he was a hacker, they came up with the idea of a prosthetic finger containing a USB drive.[1] Bergius joins the legions who call themselves “biohackers,” a group of individuals who seek to meld the study of biology with the hacker ethic, through DIY installation of body-enhancements.[2] According Grindhouse Wetware, “[c]omputers are hardware. Apps are software. Humans are wetware.” The firm is dedicated to “augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open source technology.”  Proof of this dedication came in the form of one of their developers inserting a Circadia chip, which records and transmits his bio-data to his smartphone, into his own body without anesthetic.[3] Now of course the reason that this was done without anesthetic was because no board-certified surgeon would attempt this procedure, but nevertheless it shows that where there is a will there is a way.

Perhaps the most interesting form of biohacking involves the use of magnets. One very practical application was by a man in Utah, who implanted magnets into the cartilage of his ears, effectively making his ears organic speakers that only he can hear.[4] Another practical application lies in implanting RFID chips, which act as a universal passcode by automatically unlocking your digital devices (cell phone, laptop, car). [5] But even more sci-fi-esque, is a group of individuals that have begun to experiment with magnets implanted in their fingertips, near the sensory nerve at the end of the fingertip.[6] When these magnets encounter any kind of electromagnetic field, an underground electoral conduit for example, they vibrate. This vibration is picked up by the nerve which sends a signal that allows the person to experience the quality and pitch of that electromagnetic field. It’s hypothesized that as the user develops more sensitivity and acuity with the magnets, they can qualify fluidity, shape, movement, and purportedly even the color of electromagnetic fields.[7] Truly bending the line between super-power and cybernetic enhancement.

Although these are just a few primitive examples, some see it as the future for the masses and not just a group of fringe individuals. For example, we have Google Glass that mixes technology and social media with our real-world environment. Imagine if instead of wearing glasses, that imagery was in your eyeball. Grindhouse Wetware developer, James Cannon, explains the allure of these types of devices longing for a day when, “[if[ I’ve had a stressful day, the Circadia will communicate that to my house and will prepare a nice relaxing atmosphere for when I get home: dim the lights, [draw] a hot bath.”[8]

How this new technology intersects with cyber-terrorism may be all the more disturbing. These cybernetic enhancements allow an individual, who may go unnoticed, unchecked through secure locations (think airport security, museums, schools, any place where traditional metal detectors had previously been sufficient) to be direct targets of cyber-terrorist attacks. Not only can this be the next generation of suicide bomber—no vest necessary—but there is also the possibility of the unwilling victim.

If it has wireless capabilities it can be hacked. It only takes a matter of time and determination. Thus, any person who has opted for cybernetic enhancements has the potential to be a target of cyber-terrorism—their body being used as ransom or their death as the method of attack. Although this may not implicate matters of national security for the average biohacker, when considering the remote capabilities of say a mechanical heart in a high ranking government official the scenario becomes all too real.

For former Vice President Dick Cheney,[9] who until 2007 had a wirelessly accessible heart defibrillator implanted in his chest, there was a very real fear that this life-saving technology could be used against him for nefarious purposes.[10] Cheney’s doctors were concerned about the mere possibility that someone could hack into the wireless device; effectively ransoming the VP’s life or even killing him outright. Once it became clear that not only was this a possibility, but one becoming ever more real as technology available to the masses increases, Cheney’s doctors ultimately replaced the defibrillator and deactivated the wireless component.[11]

cheney heart

Shortly thereafter a study was done on the feasibility of this type of attack at the University of Washington in 2008. Using only the hardware available to the computer science and engineering department, the professor in charge of the study was able to communicate with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator.[12]  Researchers were able to figure out how to generate their own signals to communicate with the device simply by analyzing the signals that hospital equipment would normally use; then replicating and changing the signal to turn off the machine.

The true terror of what this could mean played out on the HBO show Homeland, when double agent/terrorist Nicholas Brody executed the Vice President by accessing a remote control to the VP’s pace-maker.[13] Brody was acting on behalf of a terrorist organization when he carried out this new generation of cyber-attack. Although when the episode first aired in 2012 many thought it to be outrageous, after Cheney has gone public with the very real fears he had back in 2007 of this type of attack, it has a new sense of realism. The technologies that are being implanted into people’s bodies not only carry risk for the user who is experimenting on themselves, but for society as a whole as we become increasingly more interconnect, so too are we increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks.


[1]  USB Memory Stick in Prosthetic Finger, Grinding (March 9, 2009), available at http://grinding.be/2009/03/09/usb-memory-stick-in-prosthetic-finger/.

[2] See Erin Biba, Genome at Home: Biohackers Build Their Own Labs, WIRED (Aug. 19, 2011), available at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/08/mf_diylab/; see also Greg Boustead, The Biohacking Hobbyist, Seed Magazine (Nov. 24, 2013), available at http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/the_biohacking_hobbyist/.

[3]Marc Lallanilla, ‘Biohacker’ Implants Chip in Arm,  Fox News (Nov. 4, 2013), available at http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/11/04/biohacker-implants-chip-in-arm/.

[4] Michael Flynn, I, Robot? Local man makes big news with cybernetic implants, St. George News (July 10, 2013), available at http://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2013/07/10/i-robot-local-man-makes-big-news-with-cybernetic-implants/.

[5] Jim McLauchlin, The Future of Bionic Humans: What’s Next in Bio-Hacking?, LiveScience (June 18, 2013), available at http://www.livescience.com/37507-biohacking-james-rollins.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Lallanilla, supra note 127.

[9] It should be noted that what separates persons like Dick Cheney from the legions of “biohackers” is that unlike the former VP who needed the wireless defibrillator to live, these individuals do not implant machinery for medical need, rather it is simply for human enhancement—again this goes back to the definition if cybernetic enhancements that promotes the “hacker ethic.” See Ben Popper, Cyborg America: Inside the Strange New World of Basement Body Hackers, The Verge (Aug. 8, 2012), available at http://www.theverge.com/2012/8/8/3177438/cyborg-america-biohackers-grinders-body-hackers.

[10] Dana Ford, Cheney’s Defibrillator was Modified to Prevent Hacking, CNN (Oct. 24, 2013), available at http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/20/us/dick-cheney-gupta-interview/.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Maureen Ryan, ‘Homeland’: Walden’s Shocking Moment; Jamey Sheridan Talks ‘Broken Hearts’, The Huffington Post (Dec. 2, 2012), available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/02/homeland-walden_n_2214685.html.


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