Bioenhancements and Privacy

Cyborgs have been a staple in the science fiction genre for as long as I can remember. In the academic community, however, many have suggested that the idea of the cyborg, broadly defined as a hybrid of man and machine, is closer to a reality than we might believe. In Donna Haraway's "The Cyborg Manifesto," she famously asserted:

[W]e are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.

Despite the seeming absurdity of the suggestion that we are cyborgs already, some suggest that our smartphones have already provided a cyborg-like extension of our capabilities. In Riley vs. United States, the US Supreme Court ruled that police officers could not search the phones of arrested individuals without a warrant. Our phones not only have a direct connection to our selfhood, they extend human capabilities in unique ways. As established in a recent Brookings report, "Our Cyborg Future," the way we approach the framing of augmenting technologies can have significant implications for the way we approach their marketing and regulation.

Apart from our smartphones, the concept of a "true" cyborg, a human with implanted machinery, has already become a reality for various groups of people. Amputees are benefitting from advanced prosthetics developed through DARPA, which allow for neural input and fine-grained control. In a counter-culture movement, so-called "Grinders" have taken augmentation into their own hands, performing unsafe surgeries and implanting minor sensing technologies under their skin. Despite the stark differences between these two groups, both amputees and eccentric citizens have already begun to benefit from advances in human-interfacing machines.

On a personal level, I am extraordinarily excited by the growth of new technologies that enable humans to do more than ever before, but I worry about the privacy implications of commoditized bioenhancements. Policymakers and businessmen will face significant challenges as they attempt to regulate and develop technologies that interface with human beings. The installation of external machinery in one's own body or as an accessory enables the collection of vast amounts of intimate data.

The data collected from technologies designed to repair the human body (pacemakers, insulin levels, etc.) and technologies designed to extend human capabilities play a unique role a person's life. If mismanaged, the data generated from such technologies could be harmful to individuals or, in a data breach, ruin consumer trust in a business that manages it. Without clear privacy guidelines, businesses will struggle to market bioenhancements and consumers will be at greater risk of harms. As Julie Cohen frames the discussion in "Configuring the Networked Self," bioenhancements must provide information that contributes to individual freedoms rather than further entrench an approach that values surveillance and produces information as a form of control.

Until these standard practices for the use of "cyborg" data are developed, I won't be lining up to get an enhancement. Fortunately, Benjamin Wittes and Jane Chong already have provided a framework for future thinking about cyborg issues going forward. In "Our Cyborg Future," they outline three key considerations for the future development of cyborg technologies:

  1. Data Generation
  2. Data Collection
  3. Constructive Integration

These three considerations should be included in future discussions about surveillance, policy, and business strategies related to the growth of cyborg technologies. For most consumers, the actual commoditization of bioenhancing machinery is still quite a few years away, but whatever business manages to sell bioenhancements will have to be especially careful to integrate privacy considerations into its strategy.

The modern cyborg may not yet be here, but it is on its way. By considering the potential challenges now, we have the potential to shape the society that will address these innovations and hopefully create an environment that values and provides protections for the next generation of technology development.