Innovation

Microchip implants help employees access data; experts worry about 'slippery slope' for privacy

A Swedish company offers employees the chance to implant microchips in their hands to simplify access to buildings and carry data. But the implants raise concerns about privacy.

In the fall of 2014, a group of Swedes gathered together for a party in a basement in Stockholm. The typical party elements were present: Music, food, drinks, and people with smartphones snapping photos for Instagram. But this was no typical party: It was an "implant party," and a piercing professional was on site to implant microchips into the flesh of about 10 human hands.

A leading Swedish biohacker named Hannes Sjöblad orchestrated the event, in which a "group of wannabe implantees," (all over the age of 18), had volunteered to have RFID microchips inserted into their hand, in between their thumb and index finger. The microchips are ceramic glass capsules, each about the size of a grain of rice. The cost for the chip plus the insert is about $150.

The point of the chip is to replace keys, key fobs, business cards, and more, by storing the data in the microchip.

The RFID microchip itself, which comes from a company called Dangerous Things, uses NFC—an inexpensive and somewhat simple communication system that uses a magnetic field to transfer data. The chips are "passive," meaning they don't have a built-in power supply and can't send signals about location-based data. Instead, power comes from a device—like a smartphone—that must be in close contact with the chip. That's also how it transfers data.

For those worried about being tracked, Sjöblad said, "your mobile phone or internet search history poses a bigger threat than the RFID chip we use ever would." Sjöblad emphasized that it is very simple to take the chip out, as well.

The practice, in which employees at Epicenter, a Swedish innovation house, become chip-enabled, has been widely reported on—but the headlines have been somewhat misleading. A party, like the one held in 2014, is held there about once a quarter. The employees are not quite "cyborgs," and they are not asked to implant chips against their will. The company does not pay the cost, and there is no HR policy that encourages it. Epicenter has a member base of about 2000 people from over 300 companies, and only about six of the employees at Epicenter have had chips implanted.

The technology, it must be noted, is not new. These kinds of chips have been used to track pets, or deliveries. But having them implanted in humans raises concerns about privacy risks.

"Personally, I would not agree to be chipped, and certainly not without a contract a mile long saying exactly who could, [and how they could], use the sensed data," said Marie desJardins, AI professor at the University of Maryland and former chair of AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence). Sjöblad likened the chip to a pacemaker, which desJardins called "very off base. A pacemaker has a medical function, only your doctor has access to the data, and physicians are under strict ethical and legal guidelines to protect your privacy and data. The chip is just for convenience and would enable extremely intrusive tracking and monitoring by an employer that I think is not in the best interest of either the employees or the employers in the long run."

And while Epicenter does not have any official policy regarding the chip, desJardins said she imagines that there could be "a lot of pressure to participate, in a way that I think is really problematic."

"The potential privacy concerns of this kind of technology are enormous," said Vincent Conitzer, professor of computer science at Duke University. "Will your employer be able to tell whether you went to visit the local headhunter? What if your employer uses a third-party provider of this technology that gathers additional data, to then sell it to the highest bidder? What if the device starts collecting physiological data?"

SEE: Transhumanism: Should we use robotics to enhance humans?

While phones also carry privacy risks, Conitzer noted, the primary issue with implanting a device is that "you cannot easily separate from it."

"The real problem is that it's a very slippery slope," said Conitzer. "It may gradually become a bit of an expectation in the workplace. Then one day somebody, maybe at a different company, wants to do the same thing but with just a little additional functionality," he said. "This kind of gradual erosion of privacy expectations is precisely what happened with web browsing behavior and mobile phone data over time."

The concept of merging of humans and machines, in the vein of transhumanist philosophy, is not new. In March, Elon Musk launched a company called Neuralink that could use a brain implant to transfer data to a computer. Facebook's secret hardware group, Building 8, is working on a brain computer interface prototype to scan brains. And even the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing implantable neural interface technology.

Sjöblad called the joint-implanting process "transformative," and said it is "valuable to undergo it together with others and share it," he said. "People bond, stay in touch, and share ideas and uses for the implants."

Still, it's important to keep this kind of technology in check, said Toby Walsh, AI professor at the University of New South Wales.

"There is a misconception that technologies are inevitable and always progress. In reality, however, we get to choose which roads we go down," he said. "I hope governments step up and legislate against companies invading the privacy of their workers in these ways. There's enough science fiction out there that warn us of some of the dangers of going down this sort of road."

While these implants are currently passive, it doesn't mean they couldn't become active, and operated from a remote location. All you need to do, said Sjöblad, is install the chip with a battery.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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