Human Microchipping: An Unbiased Look at the Pros and Cons
Human microchipping? What’s that?
NBC is one of many that have recently predicted that as soon as 2017 we will see all of America’s citizens beginning to be tagged with microchips embedded under their skin, effectively using technology to answer the question, “Am I who I say I am?”
RFID microchips, embedded under the skin with a procedure that’s already cheap and available, provide a digital interface to the real world centered about the holder’s identity: your ID, credit card information, bus pass, library card, and many other sources of information you currently carry in your purse/wallet can instead be stored on an RFID chip under your skin.
As a full disclosure, I am excited for our microchipped future. However, I have done my best to outline the advantages and disadvantages (both short- and long-term) below.
Realistic (short-term) benefits:
- Identification. Our passports already have microchips, and airports, train stations, and bus stations transitioning from scanning your passport to scanning your arm would be a minimal infrastructure change. Same goes for your driver’s license and ID: all the police need is a chip scanner and you can ditch your wallet completely (assuming you already replaced your credit/debit cards with NFC).
- Memberships. Baja Beach Club was the first club to offer microchipping to VIP clients. Benefits include easy access to membership features (no more carrying around a key-card), plus the ATM component lets you track and maintain food and booze tabs. Also convenient for workplaces to control who can be where and when — obsoleting their own fobs and key-cards. Same goes for libraries, gyms, hotel and restaurant reservations, reward card management, and anywhere else you identify yourself to be granted access.
- No more body mix-ups. Unfortunately, about 28,000 babies get mixed up in hospitals every year, ultimately leaving with the wrong parents. On the other end of the spectrum, bodies occasionally get mixed up at funeral homes as well, making for some very awkward situations. A chip implanted at birth completely negates less-capable persons’ inability to identify themselves.
- Infant and elder safety. It’s not uncommon for elders to “escape” from rest homes. More than 2,000 children are kidnapped in the US each day (amounting to over 800,000 kidnapped children per year). Between 1.6–2.8 million youth run away from home each year. Being able to track anyone (that gives you permission to do so, of course!) at any time means peace of mind for millions of parents and caregivers across the country.
- Child abductions. Brazilian millionaires are already chipping their kids to thwart kidnappers, and other nations will follow. The first 3–4 hours are the most critical in the event of an abduction, with nearly 74% of abductions resulting in murder happening within that time-frame. A study by Future Foundation shows that 75% of British parents would buy a device that kept track of their child’s location.
- Health metadata. A simple scan can tell your doctor what you’re allergic to, what antibiotics you’ve been prescribed in the past, what medicines you’re on now, and a wealth of other information that can be taken into account when you need medical attention — even if you’re unconscious.
- Theft prevention. Sure, using the RFID chip in your palm to pay for things, borrow books, or open doors isn’t much different from using the RFID in a plastic card in your wallet. There’s at least one notable difference though: you can lose or get your wallet stolen pretty easily. Parts of your body are a lot harder to steal. Additionally, it’s a lot harder to criminals to secretly scan your card data when it’s embedded in your hand or arm, rather than a wallet in your front or back pocket.
- Criminal management. Prisons aren’t safe places; everyone knows that. Microchipping criminals not only obsoletes prison breaks, but also improves information gathering “on the inside”. Who started the fight in the showers last night? Just rewind and inspect GPS intersections.
- Law enforcement & gun control. Browning and Smith & Wesson have already embraced an implant-firearm system that requires weapons to be within close proximity of their owner to fire. Whether your arsenal is stolen from your home or an officer’s gun is wrestled out of their hands in a struggle, no one but the registered owner will be able to fire them. This also means your kids can’t accidentally fire the pistol they found in your nightstand. This also means no more “lost weapons” at crime scenes: GPS readings in weapon chips can always report where they were, when they were fired, and — inherently — by whom.
Realistic (short-term) disadvantages:
- Uncertainty. We don’t know what effects microchips will have on the body long-term. We don’t know the societal effects of widespread chipping. We don’t know what problems will arise across every facet of the idea, and we likely won’t know until we try it.
- Can’t commit minor crimes. Speeding, seeing an extra movie, etc. Contextualized benefits always come at the cost of broadcasting that extended contextual data: in order to serve you better, those providing services need access to more information about you. A simple always-on GPS also gives the means to know when you’re speeding, for example.
- Access control. Allowing companies to scan your chip for identification inherently also gives them access to where you are within their establishment.
- Data leaks. Any new technology is always rife with bugs and exploits. Putting so much information and reliance on a single chip makes it a prime target for hackers and other no-gooders. If information is writable (in addition to readable), there is also potential for impersonation or data corruption.
- Replacement hardware. There’s no doubt this technology will improve over time, adding more and more features. It’s possible these new features will require new hardware, and that early hardware may not have an easy way to be physically replaced.
- No universal standards. Unfortunately due to the wide variety of digital identification systems in place, no one card handles them all. You’d need to implant an RFID chip for the subway, one for your credit card, one for your library card, and so on (or, at least, implant a rewriteable chip and store one of the above at a time).
- Bodily migration. If proper care is not taken of implanted chips, they are capable of migrating within the body. This would be less of an issue if chips were ubiquitous (since they could just be looked for), but until then it’s entirely possible they could be completely overlooked (in medical emergencies, for example) if not found in the usual location.
- Medical treatment. The FDA has stated that several risks for human microchipping include adverse tissue reactions, electrical hazards, and — potentially most importantly — “incompatibility” with strong-magnet medical equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). You can’t take anything metal into an MRI; that includes pacemakers, aneurysm clips, dental implants, hip/knee replacements (unless they’re nonmagnetic titanium), and embedded microchips.
- Digital world augmentations. Bringing a digital identity to the real world can have seemingly “magical” implications: rooms that automatically adjust the thermostat to your preference when you enter, cars that start your favorite radio station when you sit down, TVs that continue whatever show you were watching when you sit down in front of them, stores that use drones to deliver contents to your cart that you need while you shop, and so on.
- Seamless 2-factor authentication. The security adage for optimal security is to use something you know (passwords) in combination with something you have (often your phone, right now). Your phone has plenty of downsides (it can be stolen, lost, dead, hacked, wiped, etc) that are solved by a seamless solution that could augment passwords for increased security without the (admittedly mild) inconvenience of current 2FA solutions.
- Revolutionary firepower. When guns are paired to the chips in their owners, revolutionary heroes can no longer break into their oppressor’s arsenal to turn their firepower against them.
- Affordability and availability. Putting so much importance on a device only available to those that seek it out requires keeping close tabs on its availability and affordability. If the advantages effectively disadvantage those who choose not to participate, gaps between classes may widen.
- Digital mimicry. In a world controlled entirely by chips within your skin, it’s possible that hackers and Evil Doers could scan and replicate the data on your chips onto their own, effectively replicating your physical presence (which is notably different from just stealing digital credentials).
- Big Brother. Every Hollywood movie has taught us that implanted microchips are primarily for Big Brother, governments, and corporations to continuously track our every whereabouts. This is a real concern that needs to be handled with privacy controls and good security practices from the get-go.
- Chip freedom. In a world where you purchase food with the chip in your hand, it’s not hard to think that some people might prefer to use a card in their wallet instead. However, it’s also not hard to imagine a world in which the “benefits” of a microchip mandate its usage — basically requiring everyone to receive a microchip or starve, lose their job, etc.
- Secret chips. One of the benefits of a microchip is that it’s invisible to those who don’t know about it, making it harder for thieves and adversaries to steal your information. However, this advantage is a double-edged sword when you consider that people could potentially be oblivious to microchips implanted by others in themselves while sleeping or unconscious.
- Biblical apocalyptics claim it could be the “Mark of the Beast”, indicating the beginning of the Revelation.
- There is currently no government agency that oversees or controls neuroelectric interface enhancements, with the closest body being the FDA due to its broad jurisdiction over medical devices.
Did I miss anything? Let me know in a comment and I’ll add it to the list!
In March 2009, British researcher Mark Gasson had a chip injected under the skin of his hand. The chip, a slightly more advanced version of the tags used to track pets, turned Gasson into a walking swipe-card. With a wave of his wrist, he could open security doors at the University of Reading laboratory, where his experiment was being conducted, and he could unlock his cell phone just by cradling it.
A year later, Gasson infected his own implant with a computer virus, one that he could pass on to other computer systems if the building's networks were programmed to read his chip. As Gasson breezed around the the workplace, spreading the virus and corrupting computer systems, certain areas of the building became inaccessible to his colleagues.
At the time of the experiment, theoretical physicist and author of "The Future of the Mind" Michio Kaku told FOX News that demonstrating the ability to spread infection was an "important point" because "we're going to have more chips in our body and clothing."
Thousands of Americans already have implanted medical devices, including pacemakers, which are inserted into the chest to treat abnormal heart rhythms, and cochlear implants, which help deaf people to hear.
But the future, Gasson says, is going to focus on implantable technology for healthy people. Part of the reason is that we continually look for ways to make our lives easier. The question is whether we're willing accept both the unintended and unknown consequences that come with giving up partial control of our bodies to technology.
Human vs. Machine
Implantable microchips provide a more intimate connection with technology than that of any other portable electronic device, like a cell phone or iPod, because the tag becomes a direct part of us when it's inserted into our body. Implants "have the potential to change the very essence of what it is to be human," Gasson said at a 2012 TEDX Talk.
The susceptibility of human microchips to cyber attacks is one worry, but Gasson wanted to explore issues beyond common concerns related to privacy and security.
That's why he conducted the experiment in two stages: A surgeon initially inserted a clean computer chip into his hand, and the computer virus was unleashed a little over a year later. During that time, Gasson and his team were particularly interested in studying the psychological implications of implanted devices.
"There's an underlying feeling that [having an implantable device] is an alien phenomenon," said Gasson, a cybernetics expert. The only way to properly explore the psychological aspect was to have the device himself, he said.
What is an RFID implant?
RFID stands for radio frequency identification. The chip doesn't have its own battery, powered instead by a reader that pulls information out of the chip. The reader gets the chip's unique ID number and then cross references it to a database. RFID chips are found in lots of things we use every day, including credit cards.
Similar, if not creepier, technology is currently at work in things like Disney World's MagicBand, which tracks a wearer's location within the park and connects to that person's accounts, according to a recent Medium post. These technologies have been useful not just for the company but for park guests — it makes their experience seamless.
These technologies are also being used for payment services: Some people use Google Wallet and Tap-To-Pay services to pay using their phones at stores and in cabs, instead of whipping out their wallet or carrying all their cards with them. The Hilton just recently announced a feature to replace keycards at its hotels. Guests will use an app to access their room.
As these technologies get more advanced and their uses get more varied, why would we be carrying a phone around when we could do all these things with a swipe of the hand?
Why an implant?The chip implanted in Gasson's thumb, which is roughly the shape and size of a grain of rice, functions "like a tiny computer." It can store information like a small USB memory stick.
The chip appears as an extremely small, though visible, bump on the side of his finger. "It does freak people out quite a bit," Gasson said. "But it doesn't look grotesque."
Unsurprisingly, Gasson says the chip did not immediately feel like part of his body. But the distinction faded over time as he used the chip more and more. "Unlike keys or a phone, you don't have to think about carrying this type of device, and then you seamlessly use it and forget about it."
Gasson has no plans to remove the chip.
Gasson's research in human microchips parallels the work of a growing community of people, so-called biohackers, who view microchipping as the next form of human evolution. Hacking tends to have a negative connotation, but this new group of technology enthusiasts offers a different meaning. In their world, the goal of hacking is not to inflict harm, but to transform something from its original purpose into something more useful.
The human body has limitations, but biohackers are constantly thinking of how those limitations can be overcome — how life can be made better or more convenient (like removing the need to carry around keys all the time) through the use of technology.
And the desire for these technologies is there. The company Dangerous Thing s has developed the first DIY kit for implantable devices, which back in December raised more than $30,000 from it's $8,000 Indiegogo goal. The package comes with everything you need to insert the chip yourself. The chip allows you to interact with other devices by waving your hand or entering a room. You can buy one now for $99.In the accompanying video, Dangerous Things founder Amal Graafstra describes how he uses his implant:
The primary use is to be able to program a tag with a url or information you want to share. I use my implants to get into my house, I use it for access control solutions, to get into my back door every day after I get home. I use it get access to my car; I can unlock my car and get in. I use it to log into my computer. I also use it to share contact details with people.
The Dangerous Things kit isn't the first commercially available RFID microchip — a company called VeriChip actually got FDA approval to market an implant back in 2004. The implant was designed to carry a unique ID number that hospitals could use to pull up a patient's medical records if he or she were unconscious. But the chip was discontinued in 2010 over privacy concerns.
The failure of VeriChip, later rebranded as PositiveID, highlights the legal issues of microchipping people. Since 2009, at least nine states have either passed laws or proposed bills to prohibit the enforced implantation of chips.
Some states, including California, have enacted an "age of consent" clause, which allows parents to override the right of children under a certain age to decide if they want to be implanted. This inevitably kicks off the discussion of whether it's ethically sound to microchip one's child at birth. Supporters love the idea because they say it would prevent kidnappings. Critics worry that if a chip gave parents the ability to track their kids, then predators could, too.
But these ethical questions are not yet urgent. The technology is not yet useful or developed enough for everyone to have it, or even want it.
To start, there are several user-related misconceptions about RFID implants, namely the idea that these chips can be used to track one's location every second of the day. This is not yet possible, because today's RFID chips do not contain GPS trackers. Someone could track the computer systems that were accessed throughout the day (in the same way a credit card company can track purchases and where they were made), but the technology doesn't provide real-time location data.
Other people worry about chips being used to covertly access unauthorized systems. As with other smart cards, which are programmed to be read by specific systems, someone with an RFID implant can't just go about gaining entry to any old computer system. It takes a specialist reader to access a certain device.
"Anything that's useful is going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years," Gasson said, referring to a time in which we may start merging devices created by tech enthusiasts and medical-type technology to do things like store or download memories from the brain.