Chipping employees’ might sound scary, but it is fast becoming reality.
Technology enthusiasts are pioneering data storage directly in their bodies
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.