How did we get here with implantable chips?
The James Bond catalog is an interesting one. Bond always has the coolest cars and state of the art gadgets. In the 2006 film, Casino Royale, Bond is about to embark on a high stakes poker game. In the scene, a scientist takes what looks to be a futuristic “staple” gun and shoots something into Bond’s wrist. A microchip, complete with GPS and bio-metric monitoring. Sometimes Hollywood has a way of predicting the future. In this case, they were spot on with implantable chips.
Implantable chips are not a new phenomenon. In fact, these devices have been used for years in tracking cattle. If you think about it, the concept makes sense. You can ID the cattle, monitor its overall health, and watch its grazing patterns. These data help ensure the livelihood of the cattle, and protect against lost cattle or over-grazed land. Scientists decided that humans are just as trackable as animals, so why not use implantable chips on them? I’m joking… sort of.
If you’ve ever worked in the corporate world or been to a University, your badge is everything. Typically, it is your permit on and off campus. It also acts as a key to access certain areas on the building. It can also serve as a meal ticket in cafeterias, based off a pre-loaded plan. But who wants to carry that bulky, pesky card around all day? That’s where implantable chips come into play.
How Implantable Chips Work
I’ll try to keep the science to a top level but it’s important to understand the technology behind these implantable chips. Radio frequency identification (RFID) is the key to making this work. A sub-component of the technology is near field communication (NFC), which can be found in many of your smartphones. A top level understanding of these will help provide insight when discussing risks later in the article.
RFID utilizes low power transmission, which saves on energy but limits range. In this case, it establishes a connection with another microchip, enabling short distance radio wave communication. The implantable chips we are discussing are passive RFID. NFC is essentially this technology but standardized for smartphones (or peer-to-peer device interaction). For our purposes, you can effectively treat the terms as interchangeable.
So think of it this way. The chip, unlike your two month old, sleeps 99% of the time. Then an active RFID reader, such as a door panel, tells the chip it’s time to wake up. Also like your baby, it takes energy for the chip to wake up. One benefit of passive chips is they require no battery; however, it still needs to draw its energy from something to wake up. The resourceful chip decides to take the signal strength from the active reader to power itself via a magnetic field. Crafty indeed! It then identifies itself with a signal that is sent via the antenna back to the reader. The reader interprets the radio wave (the unique ID of your chip) and viola. You now can enter.
Initial uses of Implantable Chips
Now that we have a basic understanding as to how these suckers operate, let’s dive into why people are using them. Some companies have recently decided to ditch the ID card. The implantable chip now serves as your ticket to everything corporate. Pop one into your hand via a minor operation, and suddenly you are a super employee. Now you can access the facility, log in to your laptop and purchase meals on campus all with the wave of the hand. I assure you this is truly happening. And the future benefits surrounding implantable chips are all around convenience.
Potential and Current Applications
Consider, for instance, never carrying a wallet again. These implantable chips can be loaded with credit cards, a drivers’ license, or any other reward card information. Items like fitness trackers could become a thing of the past with the possibility of integrated bio-metric processing. Things like heart rate and blood pressure may all be readily available simply by reading your chip via a smartphone. What’s amazing is this technology is already being used for more common tasks.
People already use them to board trains, pay tabs at bars or even turn on lights to their smart homes. How about opening your car door or arming your house alarm? You could possibly use them to lock all your physical possessions. Imagine safes or even your TV tied to your unique chip. It actually has the potential to minimize theft in that regard. Though you could easily argue that your body then becomes more of a target as a universal key to your belongings.
Taking it a step further, this could have significant impacts across the government or military spectrums. Guns won’t fire without their rightful owner holding them (see the game Metal Gear that was way out in front of this concept). Satellites cannot be launched or planes flown without specific chip interfacing from its owner. It truly has the potential to be a powerful security measure. The possibilities are mind numbing, but so are the risks.
Although these implantable chips are passive, they still can be used to collect data. Every time a door is opened or someone enters or exits a building, data is captured. Because your chip has its own unique ID, that also means your behavior is tracked. So what does this mean for an ethical standpoint?
Why is Mary always in the bathroom?
These early implantable chips do not contain GPS. This is a positive because your employer or whomever cannot track your comings and goings outside the building. The problem is, each door you’re waving to had an ID as well. So that means each time Mary uses the bathroom, the potential exists for this to be tracked. Or a cafeteria run. Or visits to a part of the building you don’t work in to see your secret boyfriend. You get the point. Clearly, this could pose a problem for the employees who don’t wished to be tracked at all times while on the clock.
As you can see, this can get real creepy, rather quickly. Of course, you will have varying degrees of concern around such data collection. Some may view it as unnecessary paranoia, believing they have nothing to hide. It may also seem unreasonable that a company would spend time and resources even mining this data. Nonetheless, it posses a potential issue. A simple answer would be to make the memory on the readers volatile. That is, each night you cycle power on the readers and flush out the data. Seems like an easy solution. Unfortunately in a world of big data, these companies have keen interested in these metrics to help maximize their workforce.
As it stands, implantable chips are completely voluntary at this juncture. This makes the debate moot as those joining know exactly what they are signing up for. There may come a day though where each company will make this mandatory so as to protect access to all their sensitive information. Then one must decide whether or not they can find work elsewhere is they don’t wish to participate. Either way, a crossroads will be inevitable if the technology continues to mature.
Security Concerns Around Implantable Chips
While ethics is a concern, security of personal data is also a big topic these days. You’ve seen it all over the news. Hacking is everywhere. It’s almost a right of passage for any major tech firm or big bank to send a sorry note to its customers for a data breach. Sadly, our data is strewn all over world in some shape or fashion. It’s literally what you sign up for logging into the world wide web of information. So you can view the risk of being hacked as either inevitable or unacceptable. The latter is preventable simply by never using the chip.
The former, while annoying, is a reality. If a device has data on it, consider it an immediate target for hackers. That means any implantable chip puts your data at risk. This becomes an even bigger issue assuming these chips mature. New features such as GPS or drivers’ license information could make this a highly susceptible and sought after target for hacking.
However, there is some good news here believe it or not. By definition, NFC can only operate at short distance transmission. Simply put, a hacker would have to be standing next to you with their device to steal your information. Hopefully, that would be fairly obvious for most people to spot. The other major positive is that many of these devices will be acting on a peer-to-peer basis. This means that the implantable chips will only actively engaged with one device or reader at a time. This can act as a barrier to hackers as most chips will require some authentication for first time use. This is like the secret handshake. Without it, the encryption level on a chip should at least make life difficult on a hacker to immediately access your data.
Where Implantable Chips are Taking Us
This is truly a fascinating technology. It’s got all the makeups of a classic risk vs reward debate. It’s possible most would argue the rewards are not great enough to have yet another data breach over our heads. Opponents to this mindset will argue that the risks of a breach are slim. Somewhere in the middle, the battle of ethics will rage on, in terms of how much data a business or University should have on you.
To me, this is just one more step towards integrating human and computer. The data doesn’t strike me as that valuable, given where the technology is today. However, it could become dangerous if these chips really do provide the key to your day to day information. As always, we will have to see how the technology matures. In the meantime, just appreciate that you are one step closer to livestock. See? That’s a positive way of saying implantable chips make us more like animals and less like computers.
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