Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Contraception by WiFi

By Michael Cook

How secure is an implantable chip that enables birth control to be switched on and off with a mobile phone?

Two years ago, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates was visiting the Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the biggest biomedical engineering lab in the world. Bob Langer is a world leader in drug delivery systems for treating cancer, diabetes and other disorders. Bill Gates, through his philanthropic foundation, is a world leader in delivering high-quality birth control to the developing world.

Gates asked Langer about the possibility of developing an implantable, long-lasting contraceptive that could be turned on and off remotely. His foundation hopes to deliver effective contraceptives to 120 million women and girls in the poorest countries by 2020. A wireless pill must have seemed ideal.

And now it is on its way. Earlier this year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a Massachusetts company, MicroCHIP, US$4.6 million to develop this device. A prototype measures 20 x 20 x 7 mm. After being implanted under the skin of the buttocks, upper arm or abdomen, it will dispense daily doses of the hormone levonorgestrel.

To conceive, women would turn the dosage off with a remote control, perhaps their mobile phone. To shut down their fertility, they would log into the system and turn the chip back on. At the moment, no hormonal contraceptive lasts longer than 5 years but MicroCHIP’s device will dispense contraception for 16 years.

The company will begin preclinical testing next year. If it passes safety and efficacy tests, the chip could be on the market by 2018. According to MIT Technology Review, “the device would be more convenient for many women because, unlike existing contraceptive implants, it can be deactivated without a trip to the clinic and an outpatient procedure, and it would last nearly half their reproductive life”.

Even if the chip is safe and effective, wireless control adds another level of ethical complexity to the already controversial issue of contraception.

Most security experts say that any personal device that is controlled wirelessly can ultimately be run by someone else. A hacker could sabotage it or a government could control it. With something so intimate as decisions about fertility, far more is at risk than losing your bank account details or crashing your PC.

It’s not hard to think of nightmare scenarios. What if an angry ex-boyfriend hacked into the chip to wreck a woman’s fertility? What if government agencies wanted to monitor the sex lives of suspects? What if prying journalists wanted a scoop on a starlet’s pregnancy?

Why couldn’t a government decree that all women of child-bearing age must be chipped? Then it could tweak national birth rates to meet its population forecasts and economic goals.

Far-fetched? Yes, but authoritarian regimes run by technocrats like to control all aspects of life, especially fertility. Ask women in Romania, Singapore or China.

Or take Rwanda. Its dynamic, technocratic and ruthless president, Paul Kagame, wants to turn his tiny country into the Singapore of Africa. He also believes that over-population is an obstacle to development. A government like his might make girls’ admission to high school conditional upon implanting a contraceptive chip. It might also find it useful for balancing the Hutu and Tutsi population.

Dr Robert Farra of MIT believes that these scenarios are unrealistic. He told the BBC: “Communication with the implant has to occur at skin contact level distance. Someone across the room cannot reprogram your implant. Then we have secure encryption. That prevents someone from trying to interpret or intervene between the communications.”

However, hackers and governments are ingenious, and security on wireless systems is often lax. A couple of years ago a diabetic programmer with a Medtronic insulin pump, Jay Radcliffe, discovered that its wireless connection had a security hole. Potentially, this would have allowed a hacker to kill him off by giving him a surge of insulin. “Emerging technologies in the medical world are often ill-equipped for the dangers that the interconnected world faces,” he says.

Actually, a contraceptive chip is just one of a host of implantable medical devices that will hook us up to the internet. Because they deliver 24/7 monitoring of our health, they will be irresistible for doctors and patients alike.

But the price will be steep. In return for better healthcare, we will literally live on the internet, with all of its possibilities and perils.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.