Employees at the Swedish unit of the German travel conglomerate TUI are volunteering to have a microchip implanted in their hands. The technology literally opens doors, but also raises numerous ethical questions.
The Ethical Minefield of Microchipping
Von Kristina Läsker
When the object beneath his skin first got implanted, Alexander Huber grabbed his hand pretty often. He stroked the little dent between his thumb and index finger and pushed it back and forth. It felt almost like when he first put his wedding ring on. Today, though, he has almost completely forgotten that the object is there. “It’s become a part of my body,” he says.
A microchip in a glass tube the size of a grain of rice has been implanted under the skin in his left hand, providing a digital interface to his body.
Huber uses it for work. The 39-year-old Swede manages the Scandinavian operations of the European travel and tour conglomerate TUI in Stockholm. The chip in his hand enables him to open doors in the office, activate printers and open electronic locks on cabinets or snack vending machines. All he has to do is press the back of his hand to the card reader. In earlier days, if Huber went to the office on a Saturday and somehow forgot his badge, he’d be stuck outside. With the implant, that problem no longer exists. “I’ll never forget my hand,” he says.
Huber was TUI Nordic’s first employee to get chipped. Now, 115 out of the company’s 500 employees wear the implant, and have done so voluntarily.
An estimated 5,000 people in Sweden, which has a total population of 10.2 million, have had chips planted under their skin, which they use to open their front door or even as a digital train ticket. But they have done so on their own. For a company like TUI to encourage employees to take the step is still the exception rather than the rule in the country.
A Dystopian Digital Future?
The idea alone of employees getting chipped raises numerous questions. In Germany, a country where people struggle with the issue of whether they should even chip their pets for ID purposes, it would be a horror scenario. The mere idea of companies using chips to monitor their employees in the future is reminiscent of the digital totalitarianism described in Dave Eggers’ novel “The Circle,” when centers on a data-hungry corporation that controls the actions and thoughts of its employees.
Is this progress, science fiction, a gimmick or the breaking of a serious taboo? The chips themselves still don’t do all that much. But if there’s anything we have learned in recent years, it’s that where data is collected, it also has the potential to be abused.
In the United States, a software development company called Three Market Square has offered to pay for implants for half of its 200 employees. They can use the chip to open doors or log in to computers. The company started the microchip implants “for fun,” says CEO Todd Westby. But Three Market Square also now views itself as a pioneer in envelope-pushing technology. Westby believes that subcutaneous chips will eventually be used as passports or even as part of payment systems.
Huber says managers at TUI in Stockholm are hoping the implants will provide employees with a “playful approach” to digital technologies, while also sparking a broader discussion. How, for example, would people feel about checking into a plane with a chip rather than an identity card? “We need to be having those conversations,” says Huber, who has been wearing a chip since November 2017.
At the time, TUI Nordic had organized a “Digital Safari” event for its employees. In the company’s old brick building in Stockholm, experts demonstrated virtual reality goggles, language assistants like Siri and headbands featuring brain scanners. Also invited was Jowan Österlund, a big man with broad shoulders and numerous tattoos.
‘I’ve Chipped Thousands of People’
Österlund is Sweden’s chip guru. A body piercer by profession, Österland earns his money through implants and lectures on biohacking, as the use of technology to optimize the human body is known. “I’ve chipped thousands of people,” he says.
At the TUI event, he put on his rubber gloves, disinfected Huber’s hand and inserted the chip using a large syringe. He felt a pinch for a moment, and then, quite spontaneously, Huber was TUI’s first chipped employee. The only bad thing about it, he says, was the expression on his wife’s face when he got home and told her about it.
He says employees literally stood in line to get chipped. Since then, TUI has covered the cost of any employee who wants to do so — on the condition they are doing it at their own risk. Each implant costs around 90 euros.
The chip technology is still relatively simple. The data is transmitted using near field communication (NFC) technology, which manages the contactless transmission of data over short distances using electromagnetic waves. The TUI implants are passive, meaning they have no power supply of their own and tap energy from the reader to exchange their data. They also have very little memory: Less than 1 kilobyte of data fits on a chip, which corresponds to a few hundred letters.
Calling Cards and Train Tickets
Initially, Huber’s semiconductor contained only a personal number, but he added a web URL later leading to his profile on the professional network LinkedIn. “Want to see?” he asks. Huber activates a smartphone app and rubs the phone over the back of his hand. The display lights up. Suddenly, his profile pops up, showing Huber in a suit and outlining his career, including his business studies at the universities in Uppsala, Sweden, and Tübingen, Germany.
TUI employees can also utilize their implants during their free time. Two gyms in Stockholm allow members to use the chips to check in. If an implantee has registered with Swedish national railway company SJ and also purchased an online ticket, all they have to do is have the chip scanned when the conductor comes by.
It’s no coincidence the microchip technology has become so fashionable in Sweden. Trust in digital technologies and the authorities is high in the country. The Swedes are far ahead in Europe when it comes to cashless payments. Even small sums can be paid by card or using a mobile phone. TUI’s Stockholm office is viewed as a digital testing laboratory.
Marianne Stjernvall is one of the company’s employees who got chipped. “If I do something more than five times a month, I want to automate it,” says the 32-year-old web analyst, who got a degree in applied computer science. Her stove can boil perfect eggs, her car warms itself up in the morning. She says she would love to see the implant interface with her smartphone in ways that could make her everyday life a little easier. “That would be brilliant,” she says.
Data Protection Concerns
But at TUI’s global headquarters in Hanover, Germany, some are shaking their heads in disbelief over the brave new world emerging in Swedish work life. There are a number of concerns over the risks implants pose for employees. For example, could TUI use geolocation to track or surveil them?
TUI manager Huber weighs in on the matter, saying that this is by no means the company’s intention. “Surveillance and control aren’t possible with the implant,” he says, noting that NFC signals have a maximum range of 10 centimeters (almost 4 inches). When implanted in a body, that range is reduced to 1 to 4 centimeters because of the skin. Besides, the chip isn’t connected to the Internet and it doesn’t record anything. Huber feels he has little reason to be concerned about his data. “Nobody’s gonna cut my hand off,” he says.
Björn Holmén, TUI Stockholm’s data protection officer, says he was “alarmed” when he first heard about the microchip. From the perspective of data protection and privacy, the 51-year-old says he now considers it to be harmless. Still, Holmén says he wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they get chipped. “That’s for each colleague to decide for his or herself,” he says. Holmén says he doesn’t wear an implant himself out, on principle and for fear of allergies.
‘Not Necessarily Secure’
Politicians in the European Parliament are much more concerned. In 2018, parliament commissioned a study investigating “the use of chip implants for workers.” The report states that every EU citizen has the right to the integrity of the human body and that companies cannot force their workers to be chipped. But the study also advises against voluntary chipping — for data-protection reasons. “The chips are not necessarily secure,” the report concludes. The report also states that the possibility cannot be ruled out that they could get hacked or become the subject eavesdropping, cloning, deactivation or manipulation.
Patrick Kramer actively promotes chipping among German businesses. The 49-year-old runs Digiwell, an online store based in Hamburg, and, like Österlund, uses implants. He earns his money with lectures on “upgrading people.”
Kramer estimates that around 4,000 to 5,000 Germany have privately had microchips implanted in their hands. At his workshop, he sells sets that allow people to implant a chip themselves. The sets, which include the implant, gloves and a syringe, cost 49.90 euros.
But German companies haven’t exactly been leaping at the opportunity. Two years ago, the German electronics retailer MediaMarktSaturn invited Kramer to an event in the city of Ingolstadt, where he implanted microchips in 30 employees. The company, however, didn’t create any possible applications for the chip — nor did it have any intention of doing so. “It was just a gag at the time,” says a spokeswoman.
TUI manager Huber is well aware of the great level of mistrust toward these types of technologies in Germany. In May, he gave a talk at Re:publica, an influential digital society conference in Berlin with the title: “Why the Nordics Are Digital Pioneers.” When he asked the audience if anyone wanted a microchip, he was met with bewildered expressions. All people did, he says, was ask about privacy, security and health issues created by chipping. Although he can understand concerns about abuse, he also thinks it’s a bit naive, especially given how most people have their mobile phones with them at all times and are allow themselves to be tracked as such. “A microchip is less invasive of privacy than a smartphone,” he says.
THE MICROCHIP IMPLANT TAKEOVER
by Badr Berrada
Microchips implanted in human bodies could transform the way workers tackle everyday tasks. In Sweden, for instance, some employees are already volunteering to have chips injected into their hands to reduce the amount of personal items they need to carry. However, as beautiful and simple as it may sound, the controversial trend could put your privacy at risk.
Getting Chipped is Incredibly Easy
Getting chipped is not painful at all. A person who is trained and regulated about as rigorously as someone who pierces ears at a jewelry store injects the chip under your skin. The most common place is on the top of your hand between your thumb and index finger. Once the chip is implanted, you can see and feel its outline under your skin. The RFID chips are easy to remove. I haven’t had one implanted, so I don’t know if “easy” equates to painless, although people who have had the experience say it’s like removing a splinter.
According to the New York Times, Three Square Market, a Wisconsin vending machine software firm, offers its employees the opportunity to inject microchips into their hands so they can open office doors, log in to computers, share business cards, and even buy snacks with just a wave.Three Square Market is chipping its employees, who volunteer, with passive RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips. These chips are activated when they are in the proximity of radio-frequency (RF) waves generated by a reader. Once the chip is “awake,” the reader has access to the information embedded in the chip.
The effective range of most RFID readers is a few millimetres to a few meters. However, range can vary dramatically depending on the power of the system being used to read the chips. Importantly, these RFID chips are not GPS (global positioning system) chips like the ones you put into cats and dogs. They cannot be used to follow you to the restroom or find you if you are lost, unless you are in close proximity to a reader.
An Innovative Long Term Solution
If you work in a very secure environment, one where you need to use a keycard to navigate between offices and hallways, chipping is a pretty convenient option. The idea that it can also be used to identify you as an authorised user of various kinds of hardware and software is also a plus. In this limited setting, the only difference between carrying an RFID keycard and having a chip is … well, nothing.
Theoretically, your company-issued RFID implant could be used to unlock the door to your home, turn on lights, unlock and start your car, and on and on. You’d just have to add a bunch of RFID-compatible interfaces to your world. Tech start-up Dangerous Things has sold tens of thousands of implant kits for humans and some to tech companies in Europe. Biohackers predict the next generation of chips will save lives by monitoring health and fitness. For now, being chipped means never having to say you’re sorry you forgot your keycard.
If you change jobs, there is no reason to have the chip removed, your encrypted RFID number could easily be used by your next employer. To safeguard itself, your previous employer would just remove permission for your RFID number to open doors, log in to terminals, etc. The procedure would be identical to invalidating a keycard or revoking log in credentials.
The Dark Side of Microchip Implant
Proponents of the technology tout its convenience and the idea that you never have to remember your wallet or a password, ever again. While they are technically correct, chipping people invokes a train of thought that quickly descends to the darkest of places.
For example: Will the government have a list of everyone’s RFIDs? What will happen if your implanted code is stolen? Can you be hacked? Is this the first step toward (your favorite conspiracy theory goes here)? While I can’t speculate on the privacy issues and conspiracy theories, it is unlikely that an encrypted RFID number would be randomly hacked. You’d need to be targeted, and even then, the encryption would offer significant protection. In practice, an encrypted RFID chip (implanted or in your wallet) is probably more secure than your smart phone.
But security is just the beginning of the story. Should people be implanted with active chips? Should we implant chips that can be geo-located? Should we implant chips with computational capabilities and memory? What capabilities might we implant after IDs? Is the acceptance of chipping people the first step toward a physical merging of humans and machines? Would we be networked to chipped people in close proximity? If so, would that create a competitive advantage? Will we become part of a collective data set? Would we become part of a collective intelligence or a network of sensors that would inform our smart devices or implanted computers to help us make decisions or take actions? These are the questions that should be answered in the near future by the scientific community.
by 松本 WMC代表 Iotラボ編集長
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