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Captain Cyborg sidekick implants virus-infected chip

First Mate Malware and the infected pacemakers of doom

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A second transhumanist RFID-chipping nut has emerged from the academic community at the University of Reading.

Professor Kevin Warwick became famous years ago after claiming he was on the way towards becoming a cyborg after he implanted a simple RFID chip in his arm, which allowed sensors to register his presence and perform simple actions such as opening a door. The same thing could be done by putting the same chip on an Oyster-card style device, of course, but that's nowhere near as tasty a morsel for mainstream media consumption. The prof has enjoyed a lucrative media and book career on the back of this exercise.

Now Dr Mark Gasson, a senior research fellow at Reading University's Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group, has managed to extract further publicity from a variant of much the same pointless experiment, featuring technology more commonly used to chip domestic pets and unspecified computer malware. Gasson surgically implanted an RFID chip infected by malware into his hand. He claimed this made him the first human to become "infected with a computer virus".

Gasson told the BBC that the exercise illustrated a new type of risk, even going so far as to suggest implanted devices such as heart pacemakers might become infected with something like a worm that spread to other implanted devices on other people.

Computer security experts were quick to describe the experiment as an absurd exercise in scaremongering. To be a genuine security concern on any level a hacker would need to be able to infect an implanted RFID chip. And the practical problems don't stop there. "The fact is that that code would not be read until an RFID reader came into contact with the affected RFID chip and even then the software connected with the RFID reader would need to have a vulnerability that would allow the code to be run," explains Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos.

"The way they are presenting their research is scaremongering nonsense that doesn't present the true nature of this, frankly, non-threat," he added.

Sunbelt Software security researcher Chris Boyd is equally dismissive. "Coming soon: I sew an infected bluetooth phone into my chest and claim to be infected by virus. For realz," Boyd writes, via an update on Twitter.

Gasson (in a nice touch sat next to a life-size Dalek model in a robotics lab) explains his experiment in a video interview with BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones (below). Beyond saying that malware-infected heart pacemakers are not a risk at present at the end of the report, Cellan-Jones allows the publicity-hungry academic to make his claims without challenging their plausibility.

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