by Andrew Brown

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.

An RFID microchip enveloped in medical-grade silicone, ready to inject just under human skin.

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.

Utopian claims:

  • 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.

Dystopian claims:

  • 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.

Other considerations:

  • 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!