Microchips In Humans: Consumer-Friendly App, Or New Frontier In Surveillance?

Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists
By Ahmed Banafa

 

banafa-fig-1-x-ray-microchip
An x-ray showing a Walletmor RFID chip injected into a person’s hand after a local anesthetic. The company’s literature on its website says: “Forget about the cash, card, and SmartPay solutions. Since now you can pay directly with your hand. Get your Walletmor payment implant now and make a step into the future.” Image courtesy of Walletmor.

In 2021, a British/Polish firm known as Walletmor announced that it had become the first company to sell implantable payment microchips to everyday consumers. While the first microchip was implanted into a human way back in 1998, says the BBC News—so long ago it might as well be the Dark Ages in the world of computing—it is only recently that the technology has become commercially available (Latham 2022). People are voluntarily having these chips—technically known as “radio frequency identification chips” (RFIDs)—injected under their skin, because these microscopic chips of silicon allow them to pay for purchases at a brick and mortar store just by hovering their hand over a scanner at a checkout counter, entirely skipping the use of any kind of a credit card, debit card, or cell phone app. (See Figure 1 at top of page.)

While many people may initially recoil from the idea of having a microchip inserted into their body, a 2021 survey of more than 4,000 people in Europe found that more than 51 percent of respondents said that they would consider this latest form of contactless payment for everything from buying a subway Metro card to using it in place of the key fob to unlock a car door. (Marqeta/Consult Hyperion 2021).

In some ways, the use of RFID chips in this manner is merely an extension of what has been going on before; the chips are already widely used among pet-owners to identify their pet when it is lost. The chips come in many sizes and versions and are far more common than most consumers realize—they are sometimes sewn into articles of clothing so that retailers can monitor the buying habits of their customers long after a purchase has been made. And Amazon has now come out with its button-sized RFID chips, which it dubs “air tags”: Clip one onto your keys, and the air tag will help you find where you accidentally dropped them—as well as making it simple to track anyone, said the Washington Post in “Apple’s AirTag trackers made it frighteningly easy to ‘stalk’ me in a test” (Fowler 2021). All for less $30 per air tag.

So, to some extent, human-machine products and the use of RFID chips is old hat; the underlying driver has always been the goal of expanding the abilities and powers of humans by making certain tasks easier and less time-consuming.

Consequently, such consumer technology can look like the next logical step—especially among those who already favor piercings and tattoos. But on second glance, the insertion of identifying microchips in humans would also seem to bear the seeds of a particularly intrusive form of surveillance, especially at a time when authorities in some parts of the world have been forcibly collecting DNA and other biological data—including blood samples, fingerprints, voice recordings, iris scans, and other unique identifiers—from all their citizens, in an extreme form of the surveillance state. Before deciding what to think of the tech, we ought to look under the hood, and find out more about some of the nuts and bolts of this hybrid human-machine technology.

First, we need to define some terms.

What is a human microchip implant?

A human microchip implant is typically an identifying integrated circuit device in the form of a radio-frequency identification transponder encased in silicate glass and implanted in the body of a human being. Around the size of a grain of rice, the chips typically are inserted into the skin just above the user’s thumb, using a syringe similar to that used for giving vaccinations. Once embedded, the chips are typically read by an external scanner, also known as a reader, that picks up the electromagnetic field emitted by a small antenna coil inside the implanted chip. This type of subdermal implant usually contains a unique ID number that can be linked to information contained in an external database, and can contain data such as one’s personal identification, encounters with law enforcement, medical history, medications, allergies, and contact information (Banafa 2021).

There are two types of microchips: active and passive. Active Microchips are equipped with their own battery, which allows them to transmit information over long distances, and memory, which gives them better storage capacities. In contrast, Passive Microchips contains a unique ID and occasionally additional data that is read when placed near a transmitter/receiver, which then reads the information written on the chip and triggers a specific action.

Challenges facing microchips

The main challenges facing the implementation of microchips can be summarized in three words; security, safety, and privacy. They are the pillars of any potential user’s trust of a new technology. Without addressing all of them, no trust in any new tech will last.

Questions about these three pillars include concerns such as: “What will make microchips secure from product damage, leak, and physical tampering?” “How safe is it for humans to keep a microchip inside their body for an extended period of time?” and “How private is my data, and how will the collected data be used?”—to name just a few.

As for the first two questions, advocates of the tiny chips claim that they’re safe and largely protected from hacking. As for the third one, scientists are raising privacy concerns around the kind of personal health data that might be stored on the devices.

Researchers also point out that the implanting of chips in humans has the same privacy and security implications as those raised by the rest of the constellation of devices that connect and exchange our personal data—the so-called “internet of things.” Cameras in public places, facial recognition apps, the tracking of our locations, our driving habits, and our spending histories—to name a few examples—are already being collected and stored by every device with a chip on its shoulder, for analysis later.

This universe of connected things keeps growing by the minute, with over 30 billion connected devices as of the end of 2020, and 75 billion devices anticipated by 2025. Just as the world begins to understand the many benefits of the internet of things, it is also learning about the dark side from ‘smart everything,’ we are now looking at small chips causing major new privacy challenges.

Obstacles to acceptance

For any new trend to be accepted and become mainstream, it needs to overcome three obstacles: Technology, Business, and Society (by which I mean the establishment of norms, regulations, and laws).

Technology: The field of RFIDs is advancing every day, and the chips are getting smaller and smarter. These factors have several implications, because in the world of the internet of things, chips are considered as the primary element. (A typical internet of things system consists of the chips—also known as sensors—networks, the cloud, and applications.) As a sensor, the chip touches upon your hand, your heart, your brain and the rest of your body—literally. The continual shrinking of ever-smarter chips is set to give a very different meaning to what some have called “hacking the body” or “biohacking.” While cyber experts continue to worry about protecting critical infrastructure and mitigating security risks, implanted chips also affect health—and add new dimensions to the risks and threats of hacking, because the sensors are  considered to be the weakest link in an internet of things ecosystem.

Business: There are many companies in this field, and the opportunities are huge—RFID chips could replace all aspects of security and identification in stores, offices, airports, and hospitals, among other possibilities. In addition, RFID chips will provide key physical raw data that, after further processing in the cloud, could deliver business insights, new treatments, and better services. This presents a huge opportunity for many players in all types of businesses and industries in the private and public sectors—as well as present huge concerns for private citizens, consumers, and civil society.

Society: Individuals are already trying to grapple with the privacy and security implications that come with technologies like the internet of things, big data, breaches of public- and private-sector data, and social media sharing. At that same time, they are also trying to take in the implications of new privacy laws in Europe and in California, along with evolving rules and norms about data ownership and “right to be forgotten” provisions. Now, along comes a set of technologies that will become much more personal than your smartphone or cloud storage history—the tiny chip under your skin poses new risks and threats. (See Figure 2.)

scanner reading chip implanted in human arm

Figure 2: Scanner reading an implanted RFID chip. Image courtesy of Walletmor. https://us.walletmor.com

At this point, probably the easiest thing to do is draw up a short list of the advantages and disadvantages of humans having implanted microchips. The advantages can be summed up as fighting fraud and theft, the monitoring of health, and the new age of microchip applications, while disadvantages include access and information, replacement parts, and ethical issues.

Advantages of microchips

Fighting fraud and theft

With implanted microchips, employees can be identified uniquely and swiftly, which will make access to facilities easier, and logging on to accounts faster. This could also mean that the processing of payments will be possible anywhere and everywhere, at any time—the embedded microchip would take the place of the contactless terminals now seen everywhere.

Health monitoring

Health care will benefit from easily stored and accessed health data and identification. A microchip under the skin could collect vital data and save it, which the end-user could then  upload via secure Wi-Fi or a mobile network. With access to your complete health records stored in an electronic database, it is easier for doctors to track your health and recommend suitable treatment, because medical professionals would have have your latest health information via your microchip, as noted in a post about implantable technology in the multi-author blogging website myAyan (myAyan, ND).

A new age of microchips applications

Microchips are still at an early stage with limited usage, but as this technology matures the implementation will move from embedding it under the skin to implanting microchips in different parts of the human body—including even the brain. Already, researchers at places such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink have been working on a brain chip implant could allow people who are paralyzed to operate technology such as robotic limbs—or even smartphones—with their thoughts (Schumaker 2020).

The rate of progress toward clinical trials on humans of this technology at this secretive company is still unclear. But implanted, contactless RFID microchips could also be inserted in places of the body other than the brain, for more everyday but equally essential purposes—such as allowing those with disabilities to automatically open doors. Other uses of embedded microchips for healthcare include keeping track of patients and families (such as mothers and their babies) in large busy hospitals with hundreds of patients, and avoiding medical errors. (Ajami and Rajabzadeh 2013)

Disadvantages of microchips

Microchips access and information

Companies that manufacture and program microchips often need access to the chips so that they can be updated—which raises concerns about a technology buried under the skin. Also, the process could be painful and risky, with possible technical glitches.

Replacement parts

Upgrades and new features are all a part of the life span of any product, but this is might be difficult for something implemented inside your body—an embedded RFID microchip is not a smart watch that can be replaced at a shop or mailed to the manufacturer. Some people experience pain during the replacement process. According to reports, there is an increased risk of infection and bleeding at the implantation site. In severe cases, septic shock and infection may arise due to incorrect insertion of microchips.

Ethical issues

Like any technology, there is always a dark side—especially with a newer technology that is so invasive that it literally gets under our skin. It’s one thing for cats and dogs to have microchips to identify them (which has been going on for years); there’s no need to gain their informed consent. But now the industry is dealing with people—who should be able to decide whether or not they want the chips tied to them for a lifetime, and who might change their mind at a later date. In addition, some repressive governments may attempt to force the chips on certain groups, giving authorities the power to monitor them for their entire lives.

In addition, regardless of whether it’s active or passive, a microchip requires a communication channel that uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or a mobile network between the microchip and its receivers—opening up an opportunity for hackers to take control over your chip remotely and gain access to what you have stored on the chip—or even worse, altering or damaging it with many consequences on your  health, privacy, and well-being.

This technology is still at an early stage of its life cycle, and we will know more as more people use it. Better circuits and materials in the chips, in addition to more secure communication protocols, will expose the glitches and make the case for using it stronger. One option to increase trust in using it is for end-users to have an easy exit from this technology—both physically and virtually—in which all of their data will be destroyed. There are many applications for a chip under your skin, but also there are also many possibilities for abuse of the technology and breach of data.

 

Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists