Chip Implants: The Next Big Privacy Debate

Some say we will all, eventually, be chipped. Others say — never! Let the privacy, legal, technical, professional, medical, security, political, religious and ‘oh so personal’ battles begin.

by / November 25, 2018
Credit: Shutterstock

Have you been chipped?

That question is set to divide millions of people in the 2020s. And perhaps billions of people in the 2030s and 2040s.

Just as the world begins to understand the many benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT), but also learns about the ‘dark side’ from ‘smart everything,’ including our connected cities, we are now on the cusp of small chips causing major new privacy disagreements.

As individuals try to grapple with the privacy and security implications that come with IoT, big data, public- and private-sector data breaches, social media sharing, GDPR, a new California privacy law, along with data ownership and “right to be forgotten” provisions, along comes a set of technologies that will become much more personal than your smartphone or cloud storage history.

Get ready for people to ask you to place microchips under your skin for a wide variety of reasons.

Why are implanted chips so controversial? What is at stake? How can such a small thing affect so many people? What leads me to proclaim that implanted chips will become the next big privacy debate?

Short answer: Implanting chips in humans has privacy and security implications that go well beyond cameras in public places, facial recognition, tracking of our locations, our driving habits, our spending histories, and even beyond ownership of your data.  

This topic touches upon your hand, your heart, your brain and the rest of your body —literally. This new development is set to give a very different meaning to ‘hacking the body’ or biohacking. While cyber experts continue to worry about protecting critical infrastructure and mitigating security risks that could harm the economy or cause a loss of life, implanted chips also affect health but add in new dimensions that conflict with people’s religious beliefs.  

Let’s explore the good, the bad and the possible ugly implications that come with microchip implants.

Background on Implanting Microchips in Your Body

First, as background, we initially explored this implanted chips topic last year in this piece about employees at Three Square Market, a technology company in Wisconsin, who had a small chip injected in their hands for security convenience. Reactions to this news was all over the map, with headlines ranging from positive stories about the dawning of a great new era to big brother privacy concerns to fears that biblical prophecies are about to come true.

Many more articles have been written on this topic since my first article in July 2017. USA Today came out in August of 2017 with the headline: You will get chipped — eventually. Here’s a quote: “This would go beyond paying with your smartphone. Instead, chipped customers would simply wave their hands in lieu of Apple Pay and other mobile-payment systems.

The benefits don't stop there. In the future, consumers could zip through airport scanners sans passport or driver’s license; open doors; start cars; and operate home automation systems. All of it, if the technology pans out, with the simple wave of a hand. …”

The Atlantic offered an article in September 2018 describing why you’re probably getting a microchip implant someday. The article focused on how microchip implants are going from tech-geek novelty to genuine health tool — and you might be running out of good reasons to say no.

“Three Square Chip says that its medical RFID implants will be powered by body heat, and McMullan’s plans to develop a single piece of hardware to aid patients with a wider range of conditions could make the chips more affordable than devices with more specialized (and limited) functions. “Many heart patients, right now, the only time they know they’ve got a problem is when they’re in the back of an ambulance,” McMullan says.

The company estimates that it will be selling chips capable of tracking a wearer’s live vital signs in a little more than a year, but a few other developments will come first. McMullan hopes that people will soon consider storing their medical information on encrypted RFID chips, and the group is also working on a way to make GPS-enabled chips available as an option for families to track relatives suffering from severe dementia—another use for the chips that poses both obvious benefits and legitimate concerns. …”

Second, the topic resurfaced last month with several stories, like this NPR article on how thousands of Swedes are inserting microchips under their skin. “More than 4,000 Swedes have adopted the technology, with one company, Biohax International, dominating the market. The chipping firm was started five years ago by Jowan Osterlund, a former professional body piercer.

After spending the past two years working full time on the project, he is currently developing training materials so he can hire Swedish doctors and nurses to help take on some of his heavy workload. …”

Third, the topic became heated — again — after this recent article in the The Guardian (UK) went viral, titled: Alarm over talks to implant UK employees with microchips. The article described how the Trade Union Congress is concerned over tech being used to control and micromanage people.

For a brief time this month, implanting chips into your body became the No. 1 topic of discussion on LinkedIn globally. An article that I posted received more than 30K views and well over a hundred comments — mostly appalled by the practice of implanting chips — at least for convenience. 

Fourth, there have been numerous articles over the past year describing medical advances, potentially even cures for various diseases, which may come by implanting microchips in humans in various ways. Here are three examples:

Implants Offered as an Optional Improvement?

But medical necessities aside, would you pay to receive a chip implant if it offered some other optional medical enhancement for your body? Other research, which started as deep-brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, now suggests that chip implants can boost your memory

Or, what if a chip implant offered the convenience of embedding a smartphone in your body? This Allure.com article suggests how.

“Chris Harrison, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, has been working on a similar idea since 2009. “People want to do more sophisticated things on mobile phones. And the industrial answer seemed to be: Let’s put bigger and bigger screens on them,” he says. “That only works up to a point. Why don’t we just forget the screen entirely? Why not use the skin? Instead of the three-and-a-half-inch iPhone, why not have the 20-inch arm bone?” So Harrison created OmniTouch (also in collaboration with Microsoft), a device worn on the shoulder that would project your phone interface onto your palm. A depth-sensitive camera picked up when and where you tapped on your skin, so the projection reacted with it. “The invention of smartphones enabled the creation of all these ideas and apps and services. Imagine what that will be like for the body,” Harrison says.

Looking back a few decades, I remember watching the TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man. The opening phrase is still appealing: “We can rebuild him. We can make him ... better, stronger, faster.”  

A Few Good Privacy Questions

There are many intriguing stories about the potential dark side of implanting microchips. Wired magazine describes, Mind Games: The Tortured Lives of ‘Targeted Individuals.’ Here’s the final paragraph from that piece: “Once she loved technology, shaping and molding it, playing with data in the backend of a website. When the targeting first began, she even considered the ways the technology could do good: What if, for instance, the chip inside your head could teach you to speak a new language? But she quickly learned that it wasn’t there to teach her—it was there to hurt her. It was permanent, and it would change her forever. …”

In this Forbes article, the author describes how The Privacy Debate Isn't About Secrets, It's About Control. Quote: “Even if Internet search yielded an accurate, fair, crowd-vetted record of all human experience — which it doesn’t — those records no longer belong to individuals, but rather to the faceless mechanisms of social discourse and surveillance. Sure, the loss of privacy can be embarrassing or frustrating, but it’s a side effect of this thornier issue of giving up control.”

Most of the same questions that surround cybersecurity and privacy in other disciplines apply to this microchip implant topic, only the stakes can become even higher and more personal.

At first, a microchip implant may be pretty “dumb” on the scale of microchip advancements. Perhaps all the chip can do is open a door or verify your identity at work. But is this only step one down a scary yellow brick road?

Here are a few basic questions to consider about microchip implants:

  • What are the benefits of implanting the chip(s)?
  • Is implanting chips physically and emotionally safe?
  • Who owns the data on the chip?
  • Who has access to the data — and when?
  • Do the chips communicate, somehow, with outside networks?
  • How are chips updated when flaws are found?
  • Can the chips be hacked? Assuming yes, what security is in place to stop unauthorized access to data and manipulation of data.
  • Do religious beliefs forbid the practice?
  • Is implanting the microchip truly voluntary? Will it still be voluntary tomorrow or in 10 or 20 years?
  • Is the practice medically necessary?
  • Are incentives offered to those who participate?
  • Are penalties coming for those who don’t participate?
  • Will being chipped start as an exception and become the rule?
  • Will ethical and moral processes and procedures be breached by hackers? (No way to stop the bad actors once you begin.)
  • What laws are put in place on this implanted chip topic?
  • What company policies are affected?

On a wider scale, since the Internet is an accelerator for good and evil at the same time, what good or evil outcomes will come from this implanted chip trend?

Closing Thoughts

There is no doubt in my mind that we will keep coming back to this implanted chip topic over the next decade. More health advantages are coming, as well as technology breakthroughs that may even bring cures for some diseases by using chip implants as part of the answer.

If you are interested, I recommend reading these other articles listing more benefits and downsides of implanting microchips — and explaining why the trend is set to explode over the next decade.

But the questions will remain about whether these substantial implanted chip benefits are worth the privacy, security and other risks. Expect related chip implant questions (in various forms) to become a top technology, privacy and security concern in the 2020s — and will even become a hotly debated topic in 2019.  

I was amazed at the deep emotional feelings regarding this topic that recently came through online, and this passion has grown in the past 18 months. More than any other privacy or security issue I have seen recently, implanted chips are, and will be, a hot-button privacy topic that is not going away. In fact, I think it may become the No. 1 privacy topic in the next few years.    

Military leaders point out that capabilities take a long time to develop, but intentions can change overnight. In other words, the debate will not only center on current technology solutions, but also on what you believe might happen in the future regarding the use of implanted chips. For example: Will it truly stay voluntary?  

Finally, since perspectives on this topic do not cut across the typical left-right divide, your personal decision on receiving a chip implant may have more to do with your trust in your doctor, your employer, your government, the technology company providing the answers, or even your religious beliefs, than your political party affiliation or what a specific chip can currently do — or not do.