Posted: 4 Min Read Feature Stories

Microchip Implants: Big Brother in a Chip Coming Our Way?

As more organizations begin wading into uncharted territory, society will be forced to examine a host of new privacy and security questions – without easy answers

Back in 1969, when Star Trek’s fleet officers scanned their thumbs on a pad to pay bills, TV audiences got more than a dose of sci-fi. They gazed into the future.

That future is now a reality.

Since last August, earth-born employees at Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based tech firm, have been breezing into their workplace, operating computers and making purchases at onsite vending machines – all by waving a hand implanted with a data-crammed microchip. Elsewhere, in Sweden, an early adopter of microchip implants in every day life, train conductors scan passengers’ hands after they book tickets online and register them on their chip.

These current uses only hint at the extraordinary potential for microchip implants -- in the United States and around the globe.

“It’s the future, and these chips are going to be more and more ubiquitous,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the NYU School of Medicine.

With credit cards, passports and driver’s licenses incorporating identification-embedded microchips and many pet owners implanting chips into their pets to track their whereabouts, it was only a matter of time before they entered the human body.

Predictions abound that everyone – from babes in arms to elderly folks suffering from dementia – will one day have a microchip implant for one reason or another.

Looking ahead, Lee Barrett, executive director and CEO of the Electronic Healthcare Network Accreditation Commission, sees value in hospitals micro-chipping newborns to ensure that mothers leave with the infants they bore. And he envisions an ever-growing use of microchip implants containing detailed data on an individual’s medical conditions, including allergies, so that physicians can readily access the information in the event of an emergency hospital admission.

In rural areas, where no physicians practice, microchip implants could remotely transmit an individual’s health data to a nurse or doctor, said Caplan, who sees the devices particularly advantageous to astronauts and submarine personnel.  The chips could also let authorities know whether pilots are drunk before or after takeoff.

Predictions abound that everyone – from babes in arms to elderly folks suffering from dementia – will one day have a microchip implant for one reason or another.

In the world of law and order, a microchip – with GPS capabilities – could be implanted in inmates to minimize prison breakouts, as well as increase the likelihood of capturing escapees before they do any harm in the outside world.

But along with their many uses, microchip implants could be prone to abuses, predict experts.  

Through WiFi, black hatters could latch onto microchip implants, infecting them with havoc-producing viruses, or they could access the vital, private information the devices contain. “Someone can use the information to extort you, sell it and threaten to release it in public places,” said Caplan.

The chips could also spur physical violence, with thieves abducting micro-chipped individuals and forcing them to wave their hands to withdraw cash at ATMs.

To prevent such scenarios, Robert J. Shaker II, senior manager, product management, in Symantec’s Cyber Security Services manager, envisions a technology that monitors heart rates and brainwaves in order to send signals to the chip that the implanted individual is under duress – and to block access to an ATM.  Adding DNA to the chip’s recognition abilities, he noted, would thwart the efforts of criminals who forcibly remove implants and insert them into their own bodies.

“The implant would notice something is wrong and could start sending signals for help,” said Shaker, who views the microchip’s tie-in with DNA, brainwaves and heart as an “end-to-end authentication process.”

Brian Green, director of Technology Ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, expressed concern that in a world where retailers, credit card companies and employers would each have their own chips for human implantation, the government could become the centralized surveillance body, which would turn the country into a “surveillance state.” Plus, it could be hackable.

“A loss of privacy is the underlying issue," said Green.

As implants become more widespread, Green believes that individuals should have the right to decide whether they want the microchip in their bodies.  But, in a surveillance state, individuals who decline implanted microchips could be out of sync with technology and even marginalized. They would risk not having the same protections as those who are micro-chipped – and if they were in danger, the police wouldn’t be able to rescue them as readily, imagined Green.

On a micro-level, a company could also become a surveillance entity. Although tracking devices are already embedded in corporate-owned cars and other equipment provided to employees for their work, “we can detach ourselves from the car,” said Michael Ansell, an attorney specializing in labor employment and consumer class action cases and associated with the New Jersey law firm Ansell Grimm & Aaron PC. “But there’s no cut-off for a chip implanted.”  Employers would have knowledge of their micro-chipped workers’ comings, goings and doings -- before, during and after work hours.

And unless the country passes legislation similar to HIPAA, which provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information, employers are under no obligation to stay mum about their workers’ personal lives. “As soon as you allow employers to have it, it doesn’t prevent them from disclosing it to others,” said Ansell.

According to experts, other possible consequences include doctors refusing to care for individuals whose microchip indicates that they aren’t eating properly or taking their daily medicine and insurance companies denying coverage to people implanted with a tracking chip that reveals their tendency to speed.  

“There’s no lying, cheating, hiding or ducking,” said Caplan. “It’s Big Brother in a tiny chip.”

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About the Author

Cara S. Trager

Journalist

Cara S. Trager, a freelance journalist for more than 25 years, has covered everything from nanotechnology as an economic engine to strategies for cleaning up a reputation online for The New York Times, Money Magazine and other publications.

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