Getting Chipped: A Dangerous Practice

by Stephen Bryen

The big story this week is about a Swedish company, called Epicenter that is injecting chips into workers on a “voluntary” basis.  The chips contain ID information allowing the employees to have access control to certain facilities, purchase goods and operate certain equipment such as computers, printers and copiers.  Around 150 workers have already been chipped and more are “volunteering.”  Is Epicenter standing in the middle of the wave of the future?  And is “chipping” a good idea?

Using ID chips is not new.  Injectable chips have been around for some time.  A prototype injectable ID chip was invented in 1979 by Mike Beigel.  The chip is essentially a passive RFID device –which stands for Radio Frequency ID chip.  The chip in its simplest form contains only a number and it is not self-powered.  However, when a compatible radio-signal is beamed at the chip, the chip receives power from the beam through induction, activates and transmits its number.  Otherwise the chip does remains quiet.

Starting around 1991 zoos started putting chips into their animals.  By 2000 many states required that to get a pet license you needed to chip your pet (provided it wasn’t a chicken, duck, hamster or rat).

An injectable biochip transponder

From personal experience with our golden retrievers, I know that a biochip transponder, which is what an injectable RFID tag is, can be handy.  Our dogs liked digging under the fence in the yard and heading off to the park.  Then they wandered.  Thanks to the chip, not only was the dog found, but we got a call telling us where to go fetch him.  [Full Disclosure: My dogs escaped a second time and ended up at the same home across the park.  This time a Montgomery County policeman invited my two friends to join him in his patrol car and he brought them around to our house. Both dogs were very pleased with themselves as was the policeman who went out of his way to do a very good deed.]

The military has proposed more sophisticated biochips with sensors that can monitor such things as heart rate and blood pressure, even location.  And biochips can play a related role in medicine or in keeping track of children.  Corporations want to use biochips to track customers and their preferences and habits.

Biochips like those proposed by the military are really RFID transponders plus sensors of different kinds.  Such biochips can even store some information, so they are not necessarily tied to an external database for validation.

But there are problems.  Biochip numbers can be read externally and cloned or duplicated, so security is a problem.  Such chips also make it easy to follow someone, better than trying to track (for example)a cell phone because the chip and the person are, seemingly inseparable.  Once a person is identified, say with a face ID system, then the RFID-stored number and the face are linked. This makes tracking easy, whether it is done by law enforcement or by a nefarious terror group or by criminals.  In short, there are many privacy and personal security issues connected with chipping.

To add a gruesome note, someone kidnapped with an implanted chip could have it extracted and reinserted in someone else.  Thus if a sensitive corporation or government agency used chipping, hostile forces could fool the system and gain access.

In a pet dog or cat, the biochip is generally inserted in the back of the neck, between the shoulder blade and the dorsal midline.  A pet owner can usually feel the chip by lightly pressing the skin in this area.  In humans the chip is typically inserted in the hand, in the fleshy part above the thumb.  Again the chip can be felt.  The hand is used because biochips use near-field sensing to work, and by putting the chip in the hand the person who has been chipped can, for example, wave his hand in front of an access sensor or in front of a device he or she wants to activate.  

Does stealing an implanted chip sound impossible? Consider the theft of kidneys and other body parts these days.  Some say consent was involved, and in some cases that was so.  Some say it is all urban legend.  But the fact there have been convictions says it is a real problem.  Compared to organ theft, the theft of an implanted RFID is rapid and easy.

As biochips evolve they are likely to have additional sensors integrated into them and additional data such as medical information or even a digital photo or other biometric. This makes them even more privacy invasive and jacks up the risk commensurately.

Privacy in America and elsewhere has been increasingly on the rocks for some time.  The limited assurance of privacy in the Constitution, primarily embodied in the Fourth Amendment, is supposed (but limited) protection from abusive searches and seizures, particularly of one’s property (but not person).  Generally speaking the Fourth Amendment is a late 18th century set of concepts intended to protect freedom and liberty, but not anticipating the vast revolution in electronics, sensors and communications plus the growth of massive surveillance-driven institutions that exploit such technologies.  Chipping, for what is worth, is just another means of making privacy impossible.  The only solution to it would be new legal and possibly new Constitutional prohibitions against their use, an unlikely prospect these days.

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