Brookings Institute report on cyborg law and policy.

Brookings Institute report on cyborg law and policy.

In June 2014, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Riley v. California, in which the justices unanimously ruled that police officers may not, without a warrant, search the data on a cell phone seized during an arrest. Writing for eight justices, Chief Justice John Roberts declared that “modern cell phones . . . are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”1

This may be the first time the Supreme Court has explicitly contemplated the cyborg in case law—admittedly as a kind of metaphor. But the idea that the law will have to accommodate the integration of technology into the human being has actually been kicking around for a while.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution in 2011 at an event on the future of the Constitution in the face of technological change, Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu mused that “we’re talking about something different than we realize.” Because our cell phones are not attached to us, not embedded in us, Wu argued, we are missing the magnitude of the questions we contemplate as we make law and policy regulating human interactions with these ubiquitous machines that mediate so much of our lives. We are, in fact, he argued, reaching “the very beginnings of [a] sort of understanding [of] cyborg law, that is to say the law of augmented humans.”


The report is interesting and thoughtful. It asks exactly the kinds of questions we need to consider as a society.

Read the full report here


Since we are cited as an example twice we need to briefly clarify our views:

(1) The report states

How exactly we will mediate between the rights of cyborgs and the rights of anti-cyborgs remains to be seen—but we are already seeing some basic principles emerge. For example, the proposition that individuals should have special rights with respect to the use of therapeutic or restorative technologies appears to be so accepted that it has prompted a kind of intuitive carve-out for those who otherwise oppose wearable and similar technologies. Such is the case with Stop the Cyborgs, an organization that emerged directly in response to the public adoption of “wearable” technologies such as Google Glass. On its website, the group promotes “Google Glass ban signs” for owners of restaurants, bars and cafes to download and encourages the creation of “surveillance-free” zones.76 Yet the site also expressly requests that those who choose to ban Google Glass and “similar devices” from their property to also respect the rights of those who rely on assistive devices.77

This is  true (it refers to our section on ‘Disability rights & assistive devices‘) but our stance is a little more nuanced than implied in the report. The core issues are agency and coersion rather than some normative conception of what a human should be.

If the cyborg’s extended body includes components that they do not fully control such as:

  • Remotely controlled devices
  • Closed source devices
  • Cloud services or data storage
  • Hackable or remotely updateable networked devices

Then the cyborg does not have control over there own extended body and are in a vunerable position. They are potentially subject to external surveillance, coersion and control. Further because they are carriers of external forces they may subject those arround them to external surveillance, coersion and risk. Because their extended body comprises networked technical systems they cannot reassure people that they are not going to do X because they do not control their own extended body. Thus cyborgisation forces us to replace behavioural requests “please turn your camera off and leave it outside” with the exclusion of particular extended bodies “you cannot come in to the Tibetan dissidents meeting because your body is a camera which automatically syncs with Baidu“.

Cyborgisation threatens the idea of individual agency and responsibility.

Depending on the situation it may be the cyborg themselves or those arround them that suffer most. Further depending on the situation the degree of choice that the cyborg has about using the device may differ. In the case of assistive devices the user may have little choice. All available devices may subject the wearer and those arround them to external monitoring but because the consequences of not being able to see, or hear, move or otherwise function as huge they have little choise but to accept. Similary some people may be coersed by their insurers or employeers into wearing or being implanted with a device. Then finally we have people like glassholes or lifeloggers who have freely choosen to wear a device.

Where the cyborg is subject to coersion our sympathies are with them. If a technical part makes up your extended body then you should control it not some corporation but unfortunately the majority of medical and assistive devices are closed propriety systems. Further no-one should be coersed by people, corporations or indeed wider economic or social forces into wearing or being implanted with any device. However it is clear that many people unfortunately are.

In the case of glassholes, lifeloggers or views are clear. The loss to these people of removing their device is minimial and even if they have embedded a camera in their head – noone and no circumstance forced them to do it.