The surprising truths and myths about microchip implants
The tiny bump on the back of Dave Williams’ hand is barely noticeable ― most people would miss the rice-grain-sized lump between his thumb and forefinger at first. It is only when the 33-year-old opens his front door with a wave of his hand that it becomes clear something strange is going on.
Embedded under Williams’ skin is a microchip implant ― an electronic circuit inside a pill-shaped glass capsule ― that can be used much like a contactless credit card.
Williams, a systems engineer at software firm Mozilla, is one of a growing number of so-called “biohackers” who are choosing to augment their bodies with technology. In Williams’ case, he chose to implant a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip into his hand out of curiosity.
The procedure has essentially turned him into a walking contactless smart card. By registering the tag with a variety of devices, he can use it to trigger certain functions, such as transferring his contact details to a friend’s mobile phone.
Another level of convenience
“I have the world's worst memory,” says Williams. The fact that he now has a gadget on him at all times that opens doors and unlocks his computer ― one that he can’t leave at home or forget ― is a huge advantage. “It's also fun to give someone my number and email address by touching their phone to my hand.”
This new level of convenience is one of the biggest draws for those installing implantable RFID implants, and the number of people experimenting with the devices is growing. One manufacturer of the chips, Dangerous Things, told CNBC last year that it had sold more than 10,000 of them, along with the kits needed to install them under the skin. But as they become more widespread, concerns are growing about what the trend might mean for personal privacy and security.
This week, a vending machine company based in River Falls, Wisconsin, announced that it is offering to implant chips into its employees’ hands. Three Square Market says a $300 (£230) chip will allow workers to open doors, log in to computers and even purchase food in their canteen. Already 50 employees have signed up to have an implant.
最近，威斯康星河瀑市（River Falls, Wisconsin）的一家自动售货机公司宣布，他们将向员工提供一种可以植入手中的芯片。Three Square Market公司表示，这样一个300美元（230英镑）的芯片可以让员工打开大门，登录电脑，甚至在食堂打饭。已经拥有50名员工签字接受芯片植入。
They’re not the only ones to do so. Cincinnati-based video surveillance firm CityWatcher embedded the gadgets under the skin of two employees in 2006, and technology incubator EpiCentre said it would be offering the chips to its members in Stockholm earlier this year.
BioHax International, which is supplying the chips to Three Square Market, says dozens of other firms around the world ― including some multinationals ― are looking to implement similar schemes in their workplaces.
为Three Square Market公司提供芯片的BioHax International公司表示，世界各地还有几十家其他公司――包括一些跨国公司――也希望在职场部署类似的机制。
The trend has sparked alarm over whether wireless implants could be used to keep tabs on employees by tracking their movements, and civil liberties groups warn they could be used intrude upon privacy in other ways. Many of those already working with the implants, however, are baffled by this concern.
The tech is nothing new
“It is pretty easy to pick up this kind of information on a person without an implant,” says Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics and deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry University, who became one of the first people in the world to have an RFID chip surgically implanted into his forearm in 1998.
"即使没有植入芯片，也很容易了解人们这种信息。"考文垂大学（Coventry University）副校长、控制学教授凯文・沃维克（Kevin Warwick）说，他在1998年就成为全世界首批通过手术在胳膊中植入RFID芯片的人之一。
RFID technology is already attached to cargo, aeroplane baggage and products in shops. It’s used to microchip pets. Many of us carry it around with us all day in our wallets: most modern mobile phones are equipped with RFID, as are contactless cards, many metropolitan travel cards, and e-passports.
It’s not a huge leap from having this technology in our pockets to having it under our skin. “The key point is It should be a choice for each individual,” cautions Warwick. “If a company says we will only give you a job if you have such an implant, it raises ethical issues.”
It is also worth remembering almost all of us carry a device with us every day that sends far more information about our movements and daily behaviour to companies like Google, Apple and Facebook than a RFID implant ever could.
“Mobile phones are much more dangerous to our privacy,” says Pawel Rotter, a biomedical engineer at AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków, Poland. “If hacked, phones can convert into the perfect spy with microphones, cameras and GPS. Compared to them, the privacy risks from RFID are really small.”
"手机对我们的隐私构成的危险更大。"波兰克拉科夫（Kraków, Poland）的AGH科技大学（AGH University of Science and Technology）生物医学工程师帕威尔・罗特（Pawel Rotter）说，"如果被黑，手机就能变成一个配有麦克风、摄像头和GPS的完美间谍。与之相比，RFID的隐私风险真的很小。"
Surveillance concerns about the chip on the back of his hand don’t worry Dave Williams as it can only be activated if placed a few centimetres from a reader. “Fears of GPS-style tracking are strictly science fiction at this point,” he says. He is also keen to emphasise that the procedure to implant it isn’t as gruesome as some might imagine.
Williams installed his chip himself, using plenty of iodine to keep everything sterile. “There was almost no pain at all,” he says. “Removing the tag will be a little harder, but with a scalpel and pair of tweezers it's not a huge job.”
Hacking and security concerns, however, are less easily hand-waved away. RFID chips can only carry a minuscule 1 kilobyte or so of data, but one researcher at Reading University’s School of Systems Engineering, Mark Gasson, demonstrated that they are vulnerable to malware.
然而，黑客和安全方面的担忧并非轻而易举就能解决。RFID芯片只能携带很少的数据，大约只有1KB左右，但是雷丁大学（Reading University）系统工程学院的研究员马克・贾森（Mark Gasson）却证明，它们很容易受到恶意软件的攻击。
Gasson had an RFID tag implanted in his left hand in 2009, and tweaked it a year later so that it would pass on a computer virus. The experiment uploaded a web address to the computer connected to the reader, which would cause it to download some malware if it was online.
“It was actually a surprisingly violating experience,” says Gasson. “I became a danger to the building’s systems.”
While regular workplace entry cards can be hacked too, the very attribute of an RFID implant that makes it so convenient ― the fact that it can't be forgotten or left at home ― is also its biggest drawback. When a subcutaneous gadget goes wrong, the experience can be far more harrowing.
“Implantable technology can’t be easily removed or in this case even switched off,” Gasson says. “I felt like the implant was a part of my body, so there was a real feeling of helplessness when things weren’t right.”