Smart PR stunt or reckless experiment with the future? Swedish tech startup hub Epicenter’s offer of RFID microchip implants to members and staff made headlines globally last week, amid countless mentions of “cyborgs” and warnings of a “dystopian” future.
The move has seen over 150 employees and hub members choose to have RFID microchips the size of rice grains injected into their hands, allowing them to open doors, use the printer, and pay for food items at the cafeteria just by waving their hand in front of a reader.
As one of the first organizations to sponsor a body modification programme, Epicenter literally takes technology experimenting into a new dimension. In doing so it raises four issues:
1. What exactly is the user benefit?
There are several key questions that any innovation project needs to answer. What problem are we trying to solve? Is it a problem worth solving? How does the user benefit from our solution? What will the user experience be? The first issue I have with Epicenter’s implant initiative is that it is trying to solve a problem — hassle free payment/printing/door opening — for which equally effective and less invasive solutions already exist. The implanted RFID chip is no different from the one on a standard office key fob or an Oyster-style travel card that provides users with a unique identifier that can be read by scanners near doors or at pay points. Yes, having it implanted in a hand is more convenient and “cool”, but existing wearables such as NFC rings do exactly the same job and can be taken off at will. Which brings me to the user experience: Having a microchip inserted is painful, and you’ll need to have it removed if you move office/job or change your mind about having the implant — think Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall.
2. What happens to the data?
The microchips used in initiatives like these are passive, they can’t actively “monitor” the user’s activity. They can, however, store or help to create very detailed logs of events such as opening a door or making a purchase. While this might seem like basic data that can’t be used for much, data science can transform trivial information into insights into a user’s life. For example, in theory, a company could mine data from an implanted microchip and work out that it takes some employees longer than others to get from door A to door B on the 4th floor and decide to fire the slow ones first.
While this scenario is unlikely in real life, questions still arise over how users know what information is being collected, what is being done with the data, who can access it, where it’s stored, and who owns it. The systems and technology involved are very complex, and the opportunities for abuse are far greater than most people realize.
3. What are the implications for security?
RFID implants raise several issues around security. An unencrypted RFID implant can be read by anyone with an NFC scanner, not just an employer. This is especially true of a chip implanted in hands, which are close to many potential scan points. What’s more, the basic chip can be read or detected from several meters away using specialty scanners with high-gain antennas.
It’s only fair to point out that we can already easily be tracked (and potentially defrauded) via the RFID technology that exists in phones and travel cards. The difference is that it is possible to block tracking via a phone or travel card by wrapping them in conductive material. It is much harder to prevent if the chip is in your hand. Security is a critical issue to consider before widely rolling out implant technology, especially in a world where thieves can steal 24 different models of cars with keyless entry systems using amplifiers and a bit of imagination.
4. Do experiments like these simply play on people’s need to be tech-cool?
Body modification is a growing trend, thanks to high profile examples such as self-proclaimed cyborg Neil Harbisson, who has an antenna implanted in his head. Meanwhile, the rise of online biohacking stores such as Cyberise.Me and Dangerous Things are effectively turning implants into consumer goods. But when body modification becomes a community-sponsored “movement” that dozens sign up to, will people feel pressure to have chips implanted simply to be included?
Permitting an organization — even a trendy, well-intentioned startup hub — to implant a microchip in your hand is giving away an unacceptable level of self-determination. Why allow big data analytics physically into your body just so you can be part of a tech experiment?
Despite these reservations, implants could conceivably be a useful innovation, particularly if the technology evolves so that the microchip can store more data. But only if they are completely controlled by the user, who would grant limited access to employers or third parties on a strictly need-to-know basis. To protect users, we would need a raft of legislation governing data ownership and security as well as an ecosystem involving trusted organizations such as the Mozilla Foundation or the Electronic Foundation Frontier, who could oversee and certify whether an employer’s use of implant data conforms to regulations.
As a one-off experiment, Epicenter’s microchip implanting initiative has balls. As part of a trend to implant technology in humans, it raises critical issues around ethics, security, and privacy. The costs of moving in this direction in terms of invasiveness, risk of incidental monitoring, and loss of control over our lives far outweighs any potential positives. In the race to be first to create cutting-edge digital services, we need to be wary of creating the illusion of progress rather than progress itself.
Paul Houghton is director of new technologies at digital innovation consultancy Futurice. His work focuses heavily on the business and technology of mobile software applications for Android and the Internet of Things. He recently oversaw an experiment involving transforming Futurice’s HQ into an Internet of Things office where staff can track one another’s whereabouts using WiFi beacon triangulation and live maps are used to let staff know if the toilet is free.
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