Human RFID implanting has become a hot topic in the past few years. Early on, the dangers of implants — at least in terms of privacy and security — appear to be outweighing the benefits. The biggest fear is that the tiny rice-sized implants may someday become mandatory and would then be used as some sort of Big Brother type device to keep tabs on private citizens. Some states, such as Wisconsin, have even gone so far as to pass legislation banning any such mandatory chip implantation. Preemptory? Perhaps, but concerns about RFID implants are not unfounded. Implants can be read by anyone with access to a RFID scanner, and hackers have shown that the chips are not as secure as had been previously thought.
So with all these concerns you wouldn’t think many people would be willing to sign up to have the implants inserted — and you’d be right. Only a handful of people worldwide have the implants. But the number of willing participants is growing. This begs the question: what kind of person would be willing to undergo the procedure and what benefits they would expect to derive? Here are a few of the pioneering guinea pigs who’ve gone under the needle to get RFID implants.
Dr. John Halamaka, CIO of Harvard Medical School, chose to be implanted with an RFID chip in late 2004. Dr. Halamaka’s RFID implant is a VeriChip used to access medical information. For Dr. Halamaka, getting the implant was a means of evaluating what could be a valuable resource for the medical industry, not an endorsement that everyone rush out and get one.
His implant stores information which can direct anyone with the appropriate reader to a website containing his medical information. He believes that chips such as these can be valuable in situations where patients arrive at the hospital unconscious or unresponsive. The implant doesn’t come without its problems, however. RFID technology used in store security systems can be set off with the implants, something that might be a tad uncomfortable to have to explain.
Another academic type who has gotten the implant is Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in England. Warwick’s initial RFID implant was used primarily for interacting with his environment. He can turn on lights, open doors, adjust heat, and access computers with a wave of his hand.
Warwick isn’t just your run-of-the-mill RFID enthusiast, however, as he has had a second chip implanted which interfaces directly with his nervous system. These sorts of experiments with implantation technology have earned him the superhero-esque nickname “Captain Cyborg”. Though Warwick has numerous detractors who say his work is simply an attempt to garner publicity, Warwick believes that research with RFID implants could lead to future medical developments that would aid those with damage to their nervous systems.
Not everyone getting an implant is a scientist by trade. Meghan Trainor’s RFID implant has a much less practical application than many of the others who have gotten them. Trainor had the implant put in as part of her master’s thesis for NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Her implant serves as part of an interactive art exhibit. RFID tags are embedded in sculptures which can be manipulated to play sounds stored in an audio database. Trainor can use the implant in her arm to further manipulate these sounds.
"I am still ambivalent about certain things (pertaining to RFID)," said Trainor. "But I am not going to say, 'This is bad.' I say, 'Let's dive in.'" While the modern art world has never been one to shy away from controversy, critics warn that RFID manufacturers are using artists as a means to downplay the risks associated with the technology. It’s questionable as to whether this is something to be seriously concerned with, as I doubt anyone is confusing the dangers of putting a Picasso on the wall with getting a chip implanted in his/her arm.
Tech geeks such as Amal Graafstra may make up the largest group of people getting RFID implants. Graafstra has two implants — one in each hand — which he uses to access his front door, car door, and computer. Graafstra has written a book on the subject called RFID Toys, in which he gives instructions on how the RFID enthusiast might rig up his/her own home with RFID technology.
Graafstra pooh-poohs those criticizing the security risks of the implants because he believes they are no less secure than existing technology. Put simply, if someone wants to break into your home or car, he/she will, in ways that would be much easier than hacking into the RFID implant. He has a valid point, as commonplace security measures aren’t guarantees of safety by any means. Graafstra’s enthusiasm for the implants is infectious. His girlfriend had an implant put into her hand as well. No word on how one deals with the implants if things go sour, but such are the problems of the future.
Mikey Sklar is another tech-savvy implant user. Sklar had the chip implanted for personal convenience, eliminating his need to carry keys or type in computer passwords. Having things happen at the wave of a hand has a satisfyingly futuristic feel to it, so you can’t really blame the tech hobbyists for wanting to implement this type of technology.
Sklar has taken the security risks of RFID to heart, and has worked on developing clothing that blocks devices designed to read RFID tags. Of course if you’re hoping to block signals from a hand based implant you’d have to keep your hands in your pockets all the time. Perhaps RFID blocking gloves are next up on the to-do list.
RFID technology has a long way to go before becoming commonplace, but as these examples show, interest in the technology is growing as the number of applications for it grows. Security and privacy issues will always exist with RFID, but as long as the implants aren’t compulsory, there is no harm in exploring the applications of a new technology.
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