LOS ANGELES - First artificial hips and titanium knees. Next, embeddable microchips?
A small Wisconsin company plans to implant tiny microchips in 50 employees' hands starting August 1, raising questions about health and privacy risks and conjuring images of man-machine pairings straight out of a science-fiction blockbuster.
The sales pitch is that workers will no longer have to swipe badges to open doors or bother with security log-ins at their PCs. The chip reader will do the work instead.
As crazy as that sounded to many, the technology has actually been used on humans for three years in Sweden, and longer in pets whose owners are worried about losing them.
The experience gives limited insight into the concerns around implanted microchips: That embedding a small device that communicates with other electronics poses a health risk — and brings us a big cyborg step closer to a surveillance state.
First, the health risk.
The Food and Drug Administration approved a Radio Frequency chip (RFID) for implant in 2004 as a way to relay medical information quickly to doctors. More recently, in 2014, the FDA said that while it was not aware of any adverse events associated with having an RFID chip in your body, the government agency said it was studying to address "concerns" about the potential effects of RIFD chips "on medical devices," like pacemakers and defibrillators.
The FDA has a section of its website where it encourages individuals to report issues.
A bunch of humans have already tried it out: Around 3,000 Sweden residents are walking around with microchips in their hands. The company Biohax International started selling the chips and their installation at tech fairs in Sweden in 2015 and just snagged the national rail company, SJ, as a client.
In June, Swedish rail conductors started scanning the hands of passengers. The lure: no paper tickets and no electronic tickets on a smartphone that could lose batteries.
The Swedish government hasn't approved the sale of the chips, nor "have they disapproved it," says Biohax CEO Jowan Österlund. "There has been no national legislation."
Österlund insists that the chip implant, which takes less than two minutes, "is safer than a piercing, as dangerous as getting your blood taken at the hospital."
The Swedish microchip experiment is just getting under way. But a furry group of scientific pioneers have been wearing these chips for years.
The RFID chips used in Sweden and by Wisconsin firm Three Square Market are similar to the embeddable pet ID's that have been implanted in cats and dogs since the early 2000s as a way of identifying the animals. They are primarily sold and installed by veterinarians.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, chipping your pet leads to an "increased chance of reunification of lost or stolen animals with their owners."
The foundation says it's safe, if installed properly, but it has also reported issues such as cats and dogs suffering from weakness in all four limbs due to improper placement of the chip. Website Chipmenot.com is a forum for pet owners who blame chips for their animal's deaths, citing cancer, lymphoma, blood loss and spinal cord injuries, among others.
Johnny Mnemonic inspiration
Aside from questions about health risks, the idea of knowingly implanting a device that could track you spooks people.
“Why would anyone want a corporation to have that much control over them?” wrote USA TODAY reader Fawn Swisher on the newspaper's Facebook page. “That’s scary to me that people would be willing to do this.”
The RFID chips, as envisioned by Biohax, aren't intended to track your whereabouts, and Biohax says its chip, in its current form, couldn't include a GPS tracker in the same size.
But GPS tracking doesn't seem like a far reach from identification technology.
A Nevada lawmaker recently introduced legislation that would ban RFID chips in human bodies. On the state Senate floor, State Sen. Becky Harris said she had ethical concerns.
“There’s no cryptology or protection measures that we’re aware of that are placed on these chips, so it’s possible to hack the information contained within the chips,” Harris said. “It is possible that you could harass or stalk chipped individuals with the right type of reader.”
Those futuristic outcomes haven't become a reality yet.
But the Swedish implanted chips were inspired by science fiction, specifically the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic, where Keanu Reeves plays a man with data storage implanted in his head that's too sensitive to be stored on a computer. "That was it," says Österlund, 37, who has spent much of his career as a professional tattoo artist. "Ever since, I wanted to do this."
Michael Chui, a partner with the McKinsey Global Institute, which researches the impact of technology on business and society, was visiting Sweden recently, and he made sure to witness a chip being implanted.
“We can talk about cutting edge in technology, but there’s something different about having something embedded in our body. Yet, it’s here.”
Chui doesn’t see the practice spreading to a lot of companies overnight.
“Every company will have to look at the trade-offs,” he says. “They could adopt the technology to advance a business case, or there could be some benefits in terms of convenience, but there are also concerns people have, like an 'ick' factor about embedding things in their bodies, and privacy concerns.”
That trade-off is in play already.
In Sweden, the chip has mostly been sold to businesses, which dole out them out to their workers for free. Should they want to pay retail, the cost would be around $300. The chip “is something you never drop, never lose, and it never, ever runs out of battery,” points out Osterlund.
For the 85-person Three Square Market, it's a great way to drum up attention. It's in the business of selling companies on its vending machine alternative, a kiosk with more food options. It wants to see companies use digital payments to speed up the checkout process, and views wearable chips as a great option.
"This is a great opportunity to be at the forefront of technology," says Three Square vice president Anthony Danna, who was on a business trip in Sweden when he first saw the chips in use.
He says the voluntary chips will save time for his employees, by letting them ditch their wallets and badges, in favor of the hand chip.
One thing in proponents' favor: most folks carry around a device every day that can do much more—the smartphone tracks our every move, and with some apps, notifies friends of our location and suggests places to eat or shop.
Johnny Mnemonic, after all, didn't have an iPhone.
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