Implanted Microchips: a Bridge too far

September 27, 2017


David Pollington, Technical Director, GSMA

Among the more striking items in technology news last month was the announcement by Three Square Market, a company in Wisconsin that is preparing to install RFID microchips into its employees. The firm expects to place devices about the size of a grain of rice into over 50 employees. These can then be used to access buildings, rooms, and computers, as well as to pay for items in company facilities.

As you might expect, concerns have been raised over privacy and if the whereabouts of an employee could be tracked remotely, or whether information on their activities could be stolen.  The CEO, Todd Westby, insists that this is impossible, stating: “This device is only readable if you’re within six inches of a proximity reader, the chances of the chip being hacked is nil to none.”

However, these assurances over security are overconfident. Hacking RFID devices is much easier than is often thought possible. While the move to higher-frequency RFID devices over the last three years has improved their security potential, the risks have not been eliminated. Successful identity theft from RFID chips is still possible by using covert readers, which can then be used to clone devices or steal identities.

There is also an unavoidable ethical element to consider here. Concerns over the social and psychological significance of allowing an employer literally to enter one’s body cannot easily be dismissed as Luddite.  As discussions continue in the tech world and beyond about the ‘always on’ work culture of modern society, might body modifications of this kind not prove a bridge too far?

The prospect of leaving the office, but taking a crucial part of it home with you in your own body, may remind some of the unnerving line from the Eagles’ song Hotel California, which warned that “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The bearer may find, still more if such devices can be tracked or compromised, that they are unable to truly escape their professional environment – even while on holiday.

These concerns can be addressed while retaining the benefits of the technology.  By relying on a device everyone already has with them anyway: their mobile phone. New mobile technologies offer a convenient and secure way for a person to authenticate themselves without the need for additional physical implants. For example, Mobile Connect can be set up to authenticate an individual in a number of ways: from behavioural information such as location and usage history, to the use of simple PINs, and, crucially, biometric information. If the RFID chip’s strongest claim is that it cannot be lost, we can be assured that we are also unlikely to lose our fingertips or retinas.

In addition, with the consensus that biometric solutions will be ubiquitous in the years to come, the huge amount of investment going into them now will strengthen both their affordability and effectiveness. We should not forget that biometrics were designed in response to concerns over the adequacy of chips to adequately verify identity.

Finally, and perhaps most simply, there is the bottom line. When asked about the cost of such implants, Mr Westby considered them highly economical at $300 per piece. For companies seeking to minimise the costs of their security arrangements, this may not seem a modest sum. However, by using the phone employees already have, the cost base is much lower.

Maintenance costs are minimised too: where there is an issue to be resolved in mobile technology, a simple update will typically suffice. For chips implanted into the body, a physical recall process will need to be undertaken, to the greater cost and inconvenience of all concerned.  In any case, as with any technology, the degree of standardisation dictates much of the practicability – and thereby cost-effectiveness – of the solution in question.

There is simply no universally-agreed chipset to make such solutions workable on a mass scale. With the privacy concerns of human microchips along with the ease of access of mobile, there is no question: use mobile networks to put services securely in people’s hands, just not literally.


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