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Ethical aspects of ICT implants in the human body

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 or occasionally transmitted to other parties. The use of ICT implants in order to obtain remote control over the will of people should be strictly prohibited.

ICT implants could be used to enhance physical and mental capabilities. Efforts should be made to make sure that such ICT implants are not used to create a two class society or to increase the gap between the industrialized countries and the rest of the world. Access to ICT implants for enhancement should only be for the purpose of bringing children or adults into the “normal” range for the population (normal meaning the conditions that generally prevail and that are not caused by genetic malfunction, disease or deficiency and lacking observable abnormalities), if they so wish and have given their informed consent. A second permissible purpose would be to improve health prospects, such as enhancing the immune system to be resistant to HIV for example. As for health purposes, access to ICT implants for enhancement purposes should be based on need rather than on economic resources or social position.

The EGE insists that surveillance applications of ICT implants may only be permitted if the legislator considers that there is an urgent and justified necessity in a democratic society and that there are no less intrusive methods. Nevertheless, the EGE does not favour such uses and considers that surveillance applications, under all circumstances, must be specified in legislation, and that surveillance procedures in individual cases should be approved and monitored by an independent court.

A broad social and political debate is needed as to what kind of applications should be accepted and legally approved, particularly concerning surveillance and enhancement. A precautionary approach is recommended by the EGE. The Member States and their national ethics councils have a responsibility to create conditions for education and constructive, well-informed debates in this area.

This field needs regulation. Currently, non-medical ICT implants in the human body are not explicitly covered by existing legislation, particularly in terms of privacy and data protection. In the EGE’s view, implantable devices for medical purposes should be regulated in the same way as drugs when the medical goal is the same, particularly as such implants are only partly covered by Council Directive 90/385/EEC on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to active implantable medical devices. The EGE recommends that the European Commission should launch legislative initiatives in these areas of ICT implant applications.

More information: http://europa.eu.in t/comm/european_group_ethics/index_en.htm

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