Computing Profession

Chip Implants Get Real

A chip ready for implantation.
A small but growing number of companies are developing chips that, once implanted in a person's body, allows that person to unlock doors, log onto computers, and purchase snacks and drinks from vending machines simply with their presence.

The idea of implanting microchips inside the human body is nothing new. Science fiction films have speculated about the concept for decades, and researchers have explored ways to use chips to address medical issues ranging from dementia to birth control.

Over the last few years, a new concept has emerged: implanting chips in people so they can unlock doors, log onto computers, and purchase snacks and drinks from vending machines simply with their presence.

"The concept is attracting attention," says Michael Zimmer, an associate professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and director of the university's Center for Information Policy Research. "Implantable chips have some utility and they can provide some convenience, but the question is whether such an invasive technology is desirable. There are many potential ramifications, particularly in the areas of privacy and surveillance."

Already, a company in Sweden, Biohax International, has introduced implantable microchips. Twenty firms, including Biohax, have implanted chips in humans, says founder and CEO Jowan Österlund. A Wisconsin-based technology company, Three Square Market (32M), is one of these businesses. About 60% of the company's employees have agreed to receive an implant. Says the firm's co-founder and president, Patrick McMullan, who is chipped: "Putting a person's identity on a chip has many possible uses, including eliminating passwords on computers, paying for purchases, and reducing medical mistakes."

Beyond the Badge

The microchips used for human implants are about the size of a grain of rice. A special device—the same type used for body implants at a tattoo shop—inserts the chip into the fleshy area between a person's thumb and first finger. Once the microchip is inside the body, an individual can wave his or her hand in front of a reader and unlock or transact with compatible systems as desired. The passive RFID chip typically replaces a badge or card—and in some cases a phone or smartwatch—that would handle the same tasks. The implantable devices rely on near-field communication (NFC), which means a reader must be located nearby.

The implantable Biohax1 chips are biocompatible, and current versions have a lifespan of up to 10 years, Österlund says. The technology is similar to the chips used to track animals, though the chips used in humans operate at a different wavelength. Currently, there is no embedded GPS, and the chips do not use encryption. They boast 1K of storage capacity with 868 writable bits available. This allows the Biohax1 NFC chips to store basic scripts and commands, and handle various tasks. Future chips will expand the storage capacity and incorporate encryption, Österlund says.

Verifying the identity of a person through implantable chips eliminates many of the problems associated with conventional systems, McMullan argues. "Badges and phones can be lost, stolen, or not work correctly. Batteries die, and other problems can occur. The ability to wave your hand at a lock or in front of a computer and verify your identity is a giant step forward. You can't open doors and get into the network with someone else's badge." He says future versions of the chip could support everything from self-checkout at grocery stores to monitoring vitals and tracking high-risk Alzheimer's patients. In fact, 32M is developing its own chip that charges off body heat and can add active tracking for medical purposes.

Embedded Threat?

Although proponents of the technology argue it improves today's authentication and security schemes, critics have expressed serious concerns. Zimmer fears implantable chips might be used by authoritarian governments to track their citizens.

Another risk is hackers stealing root biometric data over the air, or from databases. "Once your identity is compromised in the biometric space, you have no way to change it. It's not a password," he says. Zimmer also expresses concerns about technology creep and unintended consequences; "We can't anticipate the downstream impacts and how the technology could be shifted for other uses."

McMullan admits he has some concerns about the technology as well. He has been approached about producing chips to track people and has declined to work toward that end, though he doesn't doubt someone will pursue this approach. "It's nearly impossible to track someone with the current version of the chip, because it has no power." In the future, "these systems must be designed with the highest levels of privacy and security." Österlund says Biohax is also moving forward methodically; the firm plans to add additional security layers to chip designs.

Despite concerns, the technology marches forward. Österlund foresees a day when an implantable chip will eliminate all physical tokens. It could hold a passport, driver's license, payment cards, boarding passes, tickets for events, car keys, logins for websites and much more. "Chip implants could dramatically change the way we go about our daily lives, and they could greatly enhance security," he argues.

Concludes Zimmer, "The question is whether people are ultimately going to be comfortable with chips inside their body. Will employers abuse the technology? Will governments abuse it? History tells us the answer is 'yes.' Despite the benefits, implantable chips can easily be transformed into a surveillance technology."

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.

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