Ethical aspects of ICT implants in the human body: opinion
presented to the Commission
18 March 2005
Brussels, 17 March 2005
The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), chaired by the Swedish philosopher, Göran Hermerén, adopted on 16 March 2005 Opinion N° 20 on the ethical aspects of information and communication technologies (ICT) implants in the human body and presented this to the Commission. The EGE is an independent, multidisciplinary and pluralist advisory group, which is composed of twelve members. Its role is to advise the European Commission on how ethical values should be taken into consideration in the regulation of scientific and technological developments.
At first sight ICT implants are ethically unproblematic if we think for instance about cardiac pacemakers. However, although particular ICT implants may be used to repair deficient bodily capabilities, others are ethically more problematic, particularly if such devices are accessible via digital networks. ICT implants, due to their network capability could be misused in several ways for all kinds of social surveillance or manipulation.
The idea of placing ICT devices “under our skin” in order not just to repair but even to enhance human capabilities gives rise to science fiction visions with threat and/or benefit characteristics. However, in some cases, the implantation of microchips with the potential for individual and social forms of control is already taking place.
The intimate relation between bodily and psychic functions is basic to our personal identity. Neurosciences are developing very quickly. The brain implants developed to alleviate tremors in Parkinson’s disease are only one example. They show that ICT implants may influence the nervous system and particularly the brain and thus human identity as a species as well as individual subjectivity and autonomy.
These are the essential reasons why ICT implants in the human body have large and important ethical consequences. Not surprisingly, the respect for human dignity has been the fundamental basis of EGE discussions of where the limits should be drawn for different applications of ICT implants.
As already mentioned, ICT implants can be used both for health and for non-medical purposes. Both types of implants clearly require informed consent. This information should not only concern possible benefits and health risks but also risks that such implants could be used to locate people and/or obtain access to information stored in these devices without the permission of the individuals in whom the devices are implanted.
Although the necessity for research can sometimes be questioned, new knowledge is essential for the development of individuals and societies. However, the freedom of research has to be restricted by respect for other important values and ethical principles. Nevertheless, the ethical notion of the inviolability of the human body should not be understood as a barrier against the advancement of science and technology but as a barrier against its possible misuse.
In its Opinion, the EGE makes the general point that non-medical applications of ICT implants are a potential threat to human dignity and democratic society.
Obviously, the principles of data protection need to be applied to this area, since data about the human body can be generated via such implants. The privacy and confidentiality of such data need to be guaranteed. The EGE stresses the importance that not only the individual has the right to protect his or her own personal data but that society should take care that online and surveillance systems, where they are permitted, should not become systems of untenable restriction or even negation of basic rights. This should be particularly considered in case such systems become part of health systems in which data is permanently.
Read EU document presented to the Commission about ICT implants :