Chip­ping em­ploy­ees’ might sound scary, but it is fast be­com­ing re­al­ity.

Tech­nol­ogy en­thu­si­asts are pi­o­neer­ing data stor­age di­rectly in their bod­ies

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - HENRI VIIRALT

Com­pa­nies im­plant­ing mi­crochips un­der em­ploy­ees’ skins might have once sounded like a plot to a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it is fast be­com­ing re­al­ity – and em­ploy­ees are lin­ing up for the op­por­tu­nity. Back in Au­gust, a small Wis­con­sin-based tech­nol­ogy com­pany, Three Square Mar­ket, was widely cov­ered in the me­dia for pro­vid­ing an op­tion for its em­ploy­ees to have a chip the size of a grain of rice in­jected be­tween their thumb and in­dex fin­ger.

Re­port­edly, 50 out of the 80 em­ploy­ees de­cided to vol­un­teer to be “chipped”, al­low­ing them to utilise the ra­dio-fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (RFID) tech­nol­ogy in the mi­crochip to swipe into the of­fice build­ing and pay for food in the cafe­te­ria.

“It was pretty much 100 per­cent yes right from the get-go for me,” said Sam Bengt­son, a soft­ware en­gi­neer in an in­ter­view with the New York Times. “In the next five to ten years, this is go­ing to be some­thing that isn’t scoffed at so much, or is more nor­mal. So, I like to jump on the band­wagon with these kind of things early, just to say that I have it.”

Jon Krusell, an­other soft­ware en­gi­neer, and Melissa Tim­mins, the com­pany’s sales di­rec­tor, were more hes­i­tant. Mr. Krusell, who said he was ex­cited about the tech­nol­ogy but leery of an im­planted de­vice, might get a ring with a chip in­stead.

Be­cause it’s new, I don’t know enough about it yet,” Ms. Tim­mins said. “I’m a lit­tle ner­vous about im­plant­ing some­thing into my body.”

Still, “I think it’s pretty ex­cit­ing to be part of some­thing new like this,” she said. “I know down the road, it’s go­ing to be the next big thing, and we’re on the cut­ting edge of it.”

To ac­quire the mi­crochips, Three Square Mar­ket part­nered with Swedish com­pany Bio­hax In­ter­na­tional, who had al­ready made the tech­nol­ogy avail­able for a Swedish startup hub, Epi­cen­ter, in April.

Epi­cen­ter of­fers to im­plant its em­ploy­ees, as well as mem­bers of the hub to open doors, op­er­ate print­ers or buy smooth­ies with a wave of the hand.

“The big­gest ben­e­fit, I think, is con­ve­nience,” said Pa­trick Mester­ton, co­founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Epi­cen­ter in an in­ter­view with the LA Times. “It ba­si­cally re­places a lot of things you have, other com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices, whether it be credit cards or keys.”

Es­sen­tially, an RFID chip is a tiny two-way ra­dio, ca­pa­ble of con­tain­ing var­i­ous types of in­for­ma­tion. Em­bed­ded un­der the skin, once scanned, the chip can pro­vide in­for­ma­tion con­tain­ing a unique iden­ti­fier for each in­di­vid­ual, which can be linked to fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about an in­di­vid­ual, such as med­i­cal his­tory.

While the tech­nol­ogy has been around for more than five decades, it was Kevin War­wick, pro­fes­sor of cy­ber­net­ics at Read­ing Uni­ver­sity in the UK, who was the first per­son to im­plant an RFID chip into his arm in 1998, in or­der to see if his com­puter was able to wire­lessly track his move­ments within the uni­ver­sity.

Ap­plied Dig­i­tal So­lu­tions in Florida be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with their Ver­iChips in the early 2000s, re­sult­ing in the “his­toric chip­ping of the Ja­cobs fam­ily” in June 2002, with a to­tal of eight peo­ple hav­ing a unique iden­ti­fier in­jected un­der their skin due to the var­i­ous med­i­cal ail­ments that plague the fam­ily. The tech­nol­ogy got its legs and re­ceived FDA ap­proval in 2004.

While it’s un­de­ni­able that the RFID chip can be a use­ful tool in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, where hav­ing in­stant ac­cess to the per­ti­nent med­i­cal data can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death, there are sev­eral other ad­van­tages and po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions for us­ing the tech­nol­ogy in hu­mans.

Bio­met­ric pass­ports, IDs and driver li­censes al­ready con­tain mi­crochips and it wouldn’t take much to change the in­fra­struc­ture from scan­ning pass­ports to scan­ning hands at bor­der cross­ings. In fact, scan­ning would com­prise of merely walk­ing past a scan­ner in such cases.

RFID tech­nol­ogy is also used in cor­rec­tion fa­cil­i­ties around the world,

but usu­ally in the form of wrist or an­kle bands, which is much eas­ier to cir­cum­vent than some­thing em­bed­ded un­der the skin.

“When im­ple­mented cor­rectly, an RFID sys­tem could help keep in­mates out of re­stricted ar­eas and away from other in­mates that they could po­ten­tially harm or be harmed by. Ad­di­tion­ally, if an of­fi­cer needs help, the sys­tem could pin­point his or her ex­act lo­ca­tion for quick as­sis­tance. The tech­nol­ogy is in­tended to re­duce vi­o­lence, dis­ci­plinary ac­tions, and es­cape at­tempts, im­prove in­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and im­prove over­all con­trol in the prison,” found a study by Hick­man et al.

The same track­ing tech­nol­ogy could po­ten­tially be used to mon­i­tor ba­bies in hos­pi­tals that of­ten­times get mixed up or el­derly that tend to wan­der off from care fa­cil­i­ties.

Go­ing be­yond the ob­vi­ous con­ve­nience of swip­ing doors, RFID could be used in tan­dem with var­i­ous smart home sys­tems, in­clud­ing switch­ing on your favourite TV chan­nel as you sit down on your couch, or mak­ing sure the tem­per­a­ture is set to your pref­er­ence as you walk home – ba­si­cally con­trol­ling every as­pect of the home.

Firearm pro­duc­ers Smith & Wes­son and Brown­ing, too, have de­vel­oped an im­plant sys­tem for firearms, al­low­ing only the reg­is­tered owner to fire their weapon.

“There are more than 310 mil­lion guns in the United States, and more than 30 per­cent of Amer­i­cans re­port that they have a gun in their home. Chil­dren un­der age 12 die from gun ac­ci­dents in the United States about once a week, on av­er­age, and 89 per­cent of un­in­ten­tional shoot­ing deaths of chil­dren take place in the home, while their par­ents are out. Amer­i­can chil­dren are nine times more likely to be killed by a gun than are kids in other de­vel­oped na­tions,” writes Dahlia Lith­wick in a re­cent ar­ti­cle for Slate.

Nat­u­rally, there are also sev­eral con­cerns about im­plant­ing RFID chips, mainly cen­tred around med­i­cal and pri­vacy is­sues.

“There are many dif­fer­ent dig­i­tal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tems, and we use many dif­fer­ent cards. We have a credit card, an ID card, a med­i­cal aid mem­ber­ship card, a pub­lic trans­port card and so on. We would prob­a­bly also need to im­plant more than just one RFID chip. A po­ten­tial prob­lem with these chips is that they don’t al­ways stay in their place. They some­times mi­grate to a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion, mak­ing it hard to find them, which would be par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic in med­i­cal emer­gen­cies. Some other risks in­clude elec­tri­cal haz­ards, ad­verse tis­sue re­ac­tions, in­fec­tions and in­com­pat­i­bil­ity with med­i­cal equip­ment such as MRIs ma­chines. Dur­ing an MRI scan, pa­tients can­not take any­thing me­tal, in­clud­ing mi­crochips. Then there’s the po­ten­tial risks as­so­ci­ated with cer­tain phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and the is­sue of elec­tro­sur­gi­cal and elec­tro­mag­netic in­ter­fer­ence with de­vices and de­fib­ril­la­tors.

Re­search stud­ies from 2007 have in­di­cated that mi­crochips caused can­cer in be­tween one and ten per­cent of lab an­i­mals im­planted with the chips. Even though these cases are too rare to be dis­tin­guished from the can­cer risk as­so­ci­ated with any other im­planted (med­i­cal) de­vice, the fact re­mains that there are var­i­ous po­ten­tial RFID chip re­lated health is­sues that are cur­rently not ad­e­quately stud­ied,” writes Richard van Hooi­j­donk, trend watcher and fu­tur­ist, in his per­sonal blog.

RFID im­plants are also sen­si­tive to ex­ploita­tion by hack­ers, and since the chips are ei­ther read-only or read/write, in the case of the lat­ter, it means that the data could not only be stolen, but cor­rupted or wiped en­tirely.

How­ever, MIT and Texas In­stru­ments have teamed up to cre­ate hack­ing-proof RFID chips.

What this new chip does is guard against “power glitch at­tacks” which cut pass­word-pro­tected gad­gets’ power and al­lows un­lim­ited pass­word at­tempts. This grants the hacker thou­sands of tries to squeeze out the de­vice’s se­crets. But the new chip comes with an on­board power, some­thing nor­mal RFID chips lack. That makes the chip’s power “vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to cut,” the press re­lease says.

Although RFID chips are al­ready widely cir­cu­lated and the tech­nol­ogy seems to have some po­ten­tial for mak­ing our lives more con­ve­nient, whether or not hu­man chip­ping should see mass adop­tion re­mains highly de­bat­able, not only due to the med­i­cal and pri­vacy rea­sons, but be­cause there may be bet­ter, less in­va­sive tech­nolo­gies just around the cor­ner.

Aside from stor­ing data di­rectly in our DNA - which has seen ex­po­nen­tial progress be­ing made this year - holo­graphic laser etch­ing is an­other tech­nol­ogy that could po­ten­tially al­low en­cod­ing data di­rectly on the lens of a hu­man eye, or on the fin­ger­nails. While the tech­nol­ogy is still in its in­fancy, and there are sev­eral tech­ni­cal hur­dles to over­come (cur­rently it’s chal­leng­ing to over­write or erase data more than once), it cer­tainly seems that sooner, rather than later the con­cept of car­ry­ing keys and plas­tic cards may very well be a thing of the past.

PHOTO: SHUT­TER­STOCK

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