“if i were an iPod …”

Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law & Technology, presented “if i were an iPod: privacy, autonomy and Internet for Dummies” at the University of Regina on April 5, 2005. The presentation was sponsored by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation. The following are some of the highlights of this presentation.


Note for my next presentation: As the participants of the session gathered, Dr. Kerr plugged in his iPod to the room’s sound system, and a little bit of Our Lady Peace set the mood. A nice touch.

Dr. Kerr is also involved in a large SSHRC sponsored project titled “On The Identity Trail: Understanding the Importance and Impact of Anonymity and Authentication in a Networked Society.”

There were other panelists participating in this presentation, but for simplicity’s sake, I will focus on the message from Dr. Kerr. I apologize to the other respected panelists.


Intro – We live in an era of terror, weapons of mass destruction. How are we going to combat this fear? Counter intelligence? Dr. Kerr refers to an MIT project referring to smart (kitchen) counter intelligence. “Thinking systems … that lead people through a cooking experience.” Some of the potential of this is that the devices can look for activities (even kitchen activities) that could lead to dangerous outcomes. Smart devices could make our lives safer.

The previous was a lead-up to what are known as “smart technologies.” The idea of “Smart technologies” rose as books like the “Internet for Dummies” entered the market. Interesting overlay. As technologies get “smarter”, humans seem to lag behind.

Today, we are experiencing a “netvolution” … we are moving from a network of ideas, to a network of devices.

Dr. Kerr shared the story of Conrad, a nightclub owner … his goal, to have the “greatest nightclub in the world.” He had an idea. He wanted to make his club famous by creating a type of exclusivity … to develop a digitally infused concept of the VIP lounge. Conrad’s idea was inspired by the story of the Jacobs family (U.S. family) who had the Verichip implanted. From this experience, Conrad came up with the VIPchip. The VIPchip was a version of an RFID chip that is capable of transmitting information from human to machine. Conrad developed the VIP chip, had it implanted into his own body, and became a “human barcode”.

With the chip, there is “no need for cash, no need for credit cards.” “The objective tof the technology is to bring an ID system to a global level that would destroy the need to carry ID documents and credit cards.” (Conrad Chase)

Since this time, there have been many uses for the VeriChip.

– a mobile veriChip transportation unit (bus).

Microchips implanted in Mexican officials (over 160 officials)

FDA approves use of VeriChip in the U.S.

– a Chief Medical Officer implanted a chip into his own body (didn’t get the reference)

New News: VeriChip is now penetrating the Canadian market.

Wifi (ad hoc sensor networks): Devices that can “talk” to each other, and with RFID, external devices can talk to our VeriChips.

We are moving from LANs (Local Area Networks) to WANs (Wide Area Networks) to PANs (Personal Area Networks). PAN’s are the next evolution of networked technologies.

Enter Kevin Warwick, a professor of Cybernetics. “Warwick wants to make PANs really personal”. He is developing a neural transducer implant that can both record and transmit signals from the brain. The transducers can both send and receive messages. Warwick “wants to circumvent” our clumsy, human processes of communication (moving teeth, bones, lips, etc.). These transducers can also work well with existing implantable devices such as insulin meters or cochlear implants (get rid of existing external headsets).

What happens when we move implantable devices such as this, and adding them to our PAN. At this point, “security and privacy needs are heightened.” What happens when all bodily registers can be recorded: blood alcohol levels, blood type, heart rate, etc. What happens when such things can be recorded, and even controlled, elsewhere. I wonder what happens when these things are hacked … hmmmmm.

Could iTunes someday stream music directly into your cochlear implants? Interesting point.

Could your insurance provider check your bodily functions directly from a scanner and approve/deny coverage?

What will happen when such technologies are used by law enforcement?


We are moving from a network of ideas, to a network of things, to a network of people.

“… a human whose nervous system is linked to a computer not only puts forward their individuality for serious questioning but also, when the computer is part of a network, allows their autonomy to be seriously compromised.” (Warwick)

“we are considering not merely a physical extension of human capabilities but rather a completely different basis on which the [nervous system] operates in a mixed human, machine fashion.” (Warwick)

In a sense, Warwick is arguing for transhumanism … for humans to transcend beyond our physical, human limitations with the use of technology.

Dr. Kerr presented an interesting hypothesis on what would happen if we have such devices in our body, and we are tied to proprietary producers who have to power and maintain such devices. The example was used of the iPod that has a proprietary battery system. If the battery dies, the owner is tied to Apple to replace the battery. The question from Kerr, “What if I were an iPod”? What if we had proprietary devices in our body that controlled our bodily functions … that we relied up to function. What if we had to pay a human energy/utility bill to power such devices on a monthly basis?

The idea of a merger between humans and machines is no longer fantasy (e.g., Frankenstein or the Terminator). Dr. Kerr expresses his thoughts on how we must be very cautious in this emergence of human and machine.

Comment: This was an excellent presentation. I have been dabbling in this area lightly in my courses, but this provided me with excellent background which I can use in the classroom.

I am also wondering about the shift from proprietary technologies to open source technologies in industry. How will this play out? Would a human want a proprietary device inside them (problem of being tied to a particular company), or an open source device (problem: no ties, but easier to reverse engineer and essentially hack).

And additionally, I wonder about the ‘value’ of privacy in today’s N-generation. Does the upcoming generation even value privacy anymore? These are the same kids that have “sold their souls” to MSN, Hotmail, Yahoo, Friendster, etc., by agreeing to share their personal information in exchange of the utility of using social networking services. If kids don’t value privacy, what will the future look like? And if this is a problem, how do we get our youth to think critically about the business of personal information?

For more information on this topic. see Dr. Kerr’s blog at http://www.anonequity.org/weblog/.

5 thoughts on ““if i were an iPod …”

  1. This is a really interesting, but also kind of scary at the same time! I’m not sure how to feel about it.

  2. I’m not N-generation myself, but from what I can tell, the N-Genners will NOT value privacy until its loss bites them in the ass. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

    Those immense data warehouses right now sound “cool” because they can analyze, for example, your purchasing habits and send you directed advertising for similar or related consumption. Digital music services can follow the kind of thing you’re interested in and automatically feed you more of the same. I wish the “end of serendipity” were the major problem.

    The massive profiling of information from cross-connected databases (so far at least) hasn’t had obvious negative imact on the N-genners, who after all are just started to establish patterns in their lives.

  3. Pingback: blog-on-nymity: blogging On the Identity Trail

  4. it seems to be an interesting topic – was just wondering if you have any type of presentation material with you that you can share – a video / audio format.

  5. Lots of of bloggers are not really pleased with the new iPad.There was too much hype about it and lots of blogers got turned off.Thing is, I actually see some of the awesome potential of this gadget. Third-party soft for doing music, games, papers and magazines and books, all kinds of neat stuff, but they failed to sell it right (aside from the books). It feels kind of undercooked

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