Scientist 'infected by computer virus' catches publicity fever

Experts scoff at researcher’s warning about viruses spreading via implanted RFID chips

You'll be seeing variations of this headline all day today and I'll bet good money they spread to TV news faster than flu through a kindergarten: "Scientist 'infected with computer virus.' "

Feel free to call BS any time you please.

(2010's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

The source of this contagion is a remarkably credulous BBC report  about a British researcher who claims to be the first person "infected with a computer virus." From that story:

Dr Mark Gasson from the University of Reading contaminated a computer chip which was then inserted into his hand.

The device, which enables him to pass through security doors and activate his mobile phone, is a sophisticated version of ID chips used to tag pets. In trials, Dr Gasson showed that the chip was able to pass on the computer virus to external control systems.

If other implanted chips had then connected to the system they too would have been corrupted, he said.

There's a three-minute video with the story.

While I claim no special knowledge regarding RFID chips, I am quite the expert at recognizing media hype (takes one to know one) and my sensors were on full alert as soon as I read the word "contaminated."  

However, before we get to the expert dismissals of Gasson's work and the BBC's coverage of same, it's worth noting that both were careful to toss in a caveat or two while scaring the pacemakers out of people.

Dr Gasson admits that the test is a proof of principle but he thinks it has important implications for a future where medical devices such as pacemakers and cochlear implants become more sophisticated, and risk being contaminated by other human implants.

First up to the plate is Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos, with his post headlined: "Scaremongering scientist claims to have infected himself with computer virus."

Yes, you could put software code on an RFID chip that you could put in your body (or your cat, as some Dutch researchers theorised in rather hysterical fashion back in 2006) but so what?

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.

Aside from the problematic issues involved with how hackers would infect the RFID chips in the first place I think that's a pretty unlikely series of events.

Cluley was being gentle, at least compared to The Register's John Leyden, who minces no words in: "Captain Cyborg sidekick implants virus-infected chip."

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.

So which do you figure is going to get more media attention in the next 24 hours: Gasson's claims or the dismissals? (Yes, that's a rhetorical question.)

(Update: Slashdot readers are having none of it, either.)

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