“Think about a world where there could never again be a significant crime against a child. The second a kid’s not where they’re supposed to be, they can be tracked down immediately”.
No, this isn’t an excerpt from a new technology white paper but paraphrasing from Dave Eggers’ book The Circle. More specifically, from the character Francis Garaventa on the fictional microchipping program ChildTrack. According to Francis, microchipping their children will free parents from fear and allow children to once again roam free and act like kids. It’s a powerful piece of fictional imagery and propaganda and evokes lots of feelings, both positive and negative but it’s also something that could soon be a very real debate.
Predictions on when the widespread use of human microchipping will begin are not hard to find but ones without a thinly veiled supportive or oppositional agenda can be.Tweet this now
Predictions on when the widespread use of human microchipping will begin are not hard to find but ones without a thinly veiled supportive or oppositional agenda can be. Although certainly no expert, I’m always interested in the impact of new technology and felt that I should look past the hackneyed George Orwell and Dave Eggers references (apart from my own of course) and explore the issue a little further.
As with most new technologies, human microchipping raises a mixture of valid concerns, optimistic potential applications and of course, dystopian conspiracy theories. I’m going to take a look all but the later.
A Sea Of Acronyms
At first glance there may seem to be a lot of acronyms and jargon to wade through here so firstly, I’ll clarify what these are. Near Field Communication (NFC) uses magnetic field induction to enable electronic devices to communicate with each other when in close proximity. This set of short range communication protocols is how the type of microchips we’re discussing work. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology that uses radio frequency to uniquely identify objects. The implantable RFID chips we’re discussing here are fundamentally tiny two-way radios. One important thing to note when it comes to RFID systems is the frequency because the higher the frequency of the system, the longer the range of recognition. I acknowledge that there are many other things to consider such as passivity, power source and read-only compared with read-write but I also acknowledge that I shouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) go into that much detail here.
RFID chips are not new, we’re already using them in our payment, library, public transport and access cards now. It’s implanting them that’s a new concept and proponents will argue that combining all those plastic cards into one implant that’s almost impossible to lose would be a step forward in terms of efficiency. Taking that connectivity a step further could include automatically controlling digital devices like your TV, the thermostat in your home or the locks on your car. I’m sure Amazon would be quick to the market with a Dash type product or Go store that can easily communicate with RFID implants.
It’s not all good news in terms of our daily life though, many are concerned that microchips could erode our freedom of choice and force us to be on our best behaviour. Although stopping us avoiding paying for a train journey, leaving work early or driving too fast sound like good things, they are still choices that would no longer have the freedom to make. Imagine the useful information that could be mined by the insurance industry when handling a claim and then imagine the loss of freedom if RFID chips became mandatory when buying insurance.
The potential implications for the advertising industry could also be extensive and could be seen as either positive or negative depending on your point of view. More contextual and targeted advertising could be seen as an advantage but some will also feel it’s intrusive.
Access And Security
The use of RFID chips in passports, travel cards like Oyster and driving licences is already widespread which means the transition to internal chips would require minimal changes in infrastructure. We’d simply have our hands scanned at the train station instead of our wallets. The idea of implanting a RFID chip to allow access to secure offices or private membership clubs has been around for a long time now, perhaps most notably at the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona where VIP members can choose to receive a RFID implant to jump entrance queues, access the VIP lounge and even put drinks on their account.
The data could be used in bricks-and-mortar retail environments in the same way cookies are used to record internet browsing habits.Tweet this now
For a marketer like me, the potential visibility that the Baja Beach Club have over their VIP guests is tantalising. The data could be used in bricks-and-mortar retail environments in the same way cookies are used to record internet browsing habits. But the reason marketers are excited is the same reason some people are concerned about privacy and potential identity theft. There are undeniable risks when we consider that RFID chips can use a high frequency to be able to communicate over longer ranges, they can be used as GPS trackers and RFID systems can be read-write which means if hacked, the data on them could be stolen, altered, overwritten or even deleted.
It’s hard not to see the positive potential of this technology when you read about what Smith & Wesson, Armatix and others are already developing on in the US. Smart Guns use RFID technology to disable the weapon unless being held by the registered owner. But while the idea of a gun that cannot be turned on its owner seems like an obvious win for everyone, various interest groups and organisations are slowing the progress.
The final area I want to explore is possibly the most important. When it comes to technology being implanted into human bodies, the health and safety implications are always at the top of the concerns list, and rightly so. Firstly, we have to consider the physical drawbacks to a technology implant, there’s the potential for chips to migrate in the body, cause adverse tissue reactions or infections and interfere with medical equipment such as MRI scanners or defibrillators. In some cases, the body can even reject a foreign body like a microchip.
There have also been a number of research studies into the effects of RFID implants and in 2007 the Associated Press released a study linking the VeriChip implant in animals to the formation of cancerous tumours. The findings were preliminary and not conclusive but definitely concerning and need further investigation by the medical community.
It’s worth remembering that in the late 50s, the idea of an implantable pacemaker was met with similar concern and scepticism and is now in widespread use. The health benefits were obviously far greater with pacemakers but the premise is the same, scepticism is often replaced by gradual adoption when it comes to implantable technology.
One compelling benefit of RFID implants is the easily accessible medical information like allergies, medicines and previous or current conditions that can be seen by medical staff in an emergency or when communicating with the patient isn’t possible. There are also some proponents arguing for microchips with GPS capability being implemented to track elderly or mentally ill patients in care homes and even babies in hospitals or prisoners while incarcerated. This feels very similar to the fictional ChildTrack sales pitch of Francis Garaventa that I mentioned earlier and the Soul Search program from The Circle.
While I don’t have a nice tidy conclusion for you, I thought I should try and at least offer some final thoughts.
RFID microchips are already in widespread use and although the thought of having them implanted into our bodies seems strange, it’s not dissimilar to other implemented devices such as pacemakers. In my opinion, the privacy and health concerns are undeniable and so are the potential benefits but only one thing is certain, for mass adoption to be achieved a lot of discussion and debate will be required.