Cyborg rights fuel conversation at Law and Technology Symposium

Meara Isenberg

The word cyborg often brings to mind tech-enhanced half-humans, such as the Terminator or Robocop, but doesn’t usually elicit thoughts of a person with a kidney transplant, drug enhancement or even someone with a cell phone.

However, this was how Borgfest executive director Richard MacKinnon described cyborgs during the first-annual Law and Technology Symposium in the UT School of Law courtroom Friday morning. MacKinnon’s panel, “Cyborg Rights and Third-Party Doctrine,” set out to debate the future of human privacy with the overwhelming presence of technology and information sharing. 

MacKinnon said “cyborgs” can refer to anyone with body augmentation, performance enhancements or wearable technology.

“A lot of people become cyborgs through medical problems, traffic accidents or war,” MacKinnon said. “They enter as patients and consumers and veterans.”

MacKinnon was joined by law professor Matt Tait and attorney Matt Powers, who debated the question of what happens when civil liberties do not extend to our possessions, such as cellphones.

What most people do not realize, Tait said, is that information-sharing devices such as smartphones have become “an externalization of our consciousness.”

“Most people have this existential dread when (their) battery gets to 3 percent,” Tait said. “The way that you interact with the world is significantly tied to your device. The way the law is structured is that you have a lot of rights (but) your phone has no rights. What we have to be thinking is, ‘Where does the person end, and where does the device begin?’”

Tait said the third-party doctrine of the Fourth Amendment stipulates that people can not be guaranteed the privacy of information they give to third parties such as cell phone companies.

“Recently, the court has had to take different positions because the amount of data that we are producing involuntarily,” Tait said. “The quantity of it is now so large that we are starting to see people with access to it able to make significant inferences about things in your life.”

MacKinnon said the phone companies that obtain your information “are now the custodian of your rights in a very significant way.”

Law student Kathleen Barrett said she left the panel with concerns about her future technology use.

“It’s really eye-opening when you look at how this is going to change how our legal system works, in terms of constitutional protections and invasion of privacy,” Barrett said. “If our legal system doesn’t change, it will probably lead to a point where our rights are in jeopardy.”