Microchip implants will be next big thing in technology15 November 2020
Thousands of Swedes and Germans have been pioneering the use of futuristic microchips that are implanted under the skin of the hand. The technology is used for everyday tasks like accessing your smartphone, opening the front door or setting an alarm.
Biohax Int’l, the Sweden-based start-up that manufactures the microchips – the size of a rice grain and implanted via a syringe at around 150 euros – are working to access other parts of Europe.
Eric Larsen who leads Biohax Italia, is waiting for approval in Italy from medical centres and the health ministry. He said he expects to implant a chip into about 2,500 people in the first 6 to 8 months in Milan and Rome. Even without health ministry certification, Biohax Italia has already been able to embed these chips into a few hundred people with the help of a medical centre. “It’s a step towards the future… It is extremely futuristic although it is already happening. This technology was born to help us, to give us small superpowers,” Larsen told Euronews.
But COVID-19 could make people more apprehensive about their business, Larsen said, due to public concern about the contact tracking apps introduced by governments during the pandemic. “We are seeing that a lot of people in Italy are not happy with adding a GPS or something that can track our movement. That might be a danger for us,” he explained. “We’are not tracking movements. We don’t have a GPS inside but I think that a lot of people are not aware of that.”
Swedish IT solutions planner Martin Lewin uses the 2 microchips in his hand for things like logging into the computer, setting the office alarm and launching his Linkedin profile. In his opinion, using them as an alternative to cash of card payment could be the tipping point for the technology.
“It’s no different than just removing the need for a wallet, removing the need for a keychain, removing the need for all these disconnected tokens that only create risk because if you lose them you lose your identity,” said Jowan Österlund, who is behind Biohax Int’l.
In Sweden the microchip can be used as a train ticket, but can’t be used to make payments yet. “That’s what I hope will become a basic function, but I’m aware it will take some time,” Lewin said. “It was 3 years ago that I got my chip implanted and it looks like it will be another year before the chip will work for making payments.”
Larsen said that in Italy, Biohax is talking to Vodafone and Paypal to attempt to make that happen, A company in the United Kingdom, BioTeq, is also working to create contactless payments with implanted microchips. Steven Northam, BioTeq’s director said this is the “tipping point to ‘mass’ adoption” as the company receives daily inquiries about “payment implants.”
It seems, however, that the technology hasn’t moved as fast as some would have expected. Sweden’s train operator SJ said they were ending their microchips trial after a “small increase” over the last 2 years bringing the total number of users to 3,000. A spokesperson for SJ said that although they’re keeping the technology available, they will move in “another direction.”
The microchips use near filed communications (NFC) and radio-frequency identification (RFID) to communicate with a system. They are radio waves read at close contact. “It’s essentially the same technology that’s in your phone or debit card when you hold it close to a sensor,” explains Dr Rob van Eijk, the MD for Europe at the Future of Privacy Forum. It poses the same known data protection issues including the possibility that someone could pick up the signal.
“It’s similar to listening to a directional microphone, you can pick up the RFID signal as well,” explained Eijk, who used to work for the Dutch Data Protection Authority. In theory, it could be “used in a way that it makes you stand out from a crowd as a means to single out as an individual in a group… if you’re the only one wearing a biochip and everyone else is not wearing them,” he added. It could also get into more complicated data privacy issues if future versions of these chips track your health or other information, Eijk pointed out.
“The only information you ever got about implants is Hollywood pop culture and when it’s Hollywood pop culture, it’s either a giant GPS that Arnold Schwarzenegger pulls out of his nose or KGB polonium or a tracking device. So people are apprehensive,” said Österlund. But many of his customers will get these implants to launch their Linkedin accounts to share their profile more quickly.
Österlund said they are working with partners so that these microchips contain health information too. In the event that someone is brought unconscious to the hospital, a paramedic could scan the chip and get information about allergies or preexisting conditions.
For now, they’re working on regulating the chips in terms of the grade of material used and the level of data protection. “We’re pushing legislation to actually enforce and create a regulatory framework around this because we do work in a legal grey zone right now which is good for development and for disruptive technologies and all, but this thing is going into people’s bodies and staying there so we need to take that responsibility,” said Österlund.
He says it’s a technology that exists already in at least 20 countries. BioTeq in the UK has implanted roughly 250 people with microchips.
The implants are not “regulated as medical devices and thus can be implanted by anyone,” said Northam at BioTeq, but the company only uses doctors to implant them.
“Personally, I don’t see any downside. I know there are people who are worried that they can be traced, but it’s a passive technology, so there’s nothing you can’t have control over yourself,” said Lewin. “It’s necessary to go very close so information can be read off the chip. Some believe that getting the implant will be painful but it’s about equal to a bee sting.”
“The popularity of these chips will ‘boil down’ to what problem is it solving for us,” says Eijk. “Look at how quickly we changed from cash money to contactless payments – that happened in a number of years,” he added.
It’s a question of whether or not a phone can become as small as to fit under your skin. “But that’s the next level. That’s not the type of biochip technology that we’re talking about now,” said Eijk.
Oscar Giacomin / General Manager, Facto Edizioni
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