When Patrick McMullan first heard in early 2017 that thousands of Swedish citizens were unlocking their car doors and turning on coffee machines with a wave of their palm, he wasn’t too impressed. Sure, the technology—a millimeters-long microchip equipped with near-field communication capabilities and lodged just under the skin—had a niche, cutting-edge appeal, but in practical terms, a fob or passcode would work just as well.
McMullan, a 20-year veteran of the tech industry, wanted to do one better—to find a use for implantable microchips that was genuinely functional, not just abstractly nifty. In July 2017, news cameras watched as more than 50 employees at Three Square Market, the vending-solutions company where McMullan is president, voluntarily received chip implants of their own. Rather than a simple scan-to-function process like most of Sweden’s chips use, the chips and readers around Three Square Market’s River Falls, Wisconsin, office were all part of a multistage feedback network. For example: Your chip could grant you access to your computer—but only if it had already unlocked the front door for you that day. “Now,” McMullan says of last summer, “I’ve actually done something that enhances our network security.”
The problem McMullan’s chips cleverly solve is relatively small-scale—but it’s still a problem, and any potential new-use case represents a significant step forward for a chip evangelist like him. As with most technologies, the tipping point for implantable chips will come when they become so useful they’re hard to refuse. It could happen sooner than you think: In September 2017, Three Square Market launched an offshoot, Three Square Chip, that is developing the next generation of commercial microchip implants, with a slew of originative health features that could serve as the best argument yet that microchips’ benefits can outweigh our anxieties about them.
Though new to the American workplace in this implantable form, radio-frequency-identification (RFID) technology has been around for decades, and has long been considered secure enough for commonplace use. RFID ear tags are used to register almost all farm and ranch livestock with the U.S. National Animal Identification System (in Australia, the system is mandatory). If you’ve checked luggage on a Delta Airlines flight, you can thank RFID luggage tags for the fact that your bag arrived at the same destination you did. And you probably already have a personal RFID chip that goes everywhere with you—it’s in your credit card.
But of course, the fear surrounding RFID implants has little to do with RFID itself, and everything to do with implantation. American pets safely receive RFID implants without complication every day; even so, many of their owners would cite something akin to safety as a reason not to get one of their own. When a company called Verichip developed its own health-care-oriented microchip implants in the early aughts, its research indicated that 90 percent of Americans were uncomfortable with the technology. The company got FDA approval for its devices in 2004, but folded just three years later, in large part due to studies that suggested a potential link between RFID transponders and cancer in lab animals. (The risks of cancer caused by RFID have since been found to be virtually nonexistent for humans and negligible for animals, and one 2016 study even suggested that embedding active RFID transponders within cancerous tumors could be an effective means of treatment.)
A decade later, floating throughout the eruptive hullabaloo around Three Square’s “chip party” were all kinds of fears—some credible, some less so—about the dangers of introducing subdermal radio technology to the American workplace: that companies might make widespread use of this technology mandatory, or that implanted microchips might be hacked or used to track wearers, or that hands might be severed in the name of home break-ins. Many critics, including state legislators working to pass bills that would restrict RFID implants, are fearful that the metal components and circuitry in the chips would mean certain death if a “wearer” were exposed to an MRI machine or defibrillator.
Then there are broader fears about the use of chip technology to track humans: Before damning research halted Verichip’s growth, the company’s chairman suggested in a 2006 appearance on Fox & Friends that Verichip implants could be used to register migrant workers at the border and verify their identity in the workplace; that same year, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe reportedly proposed to then-Senators Arlen Specter and Jeff Sessions that the chips could be implanted into Colombian workers before they entered the United States for seasonal work. Meanwhile, some fundamentalist-Christian communities remain convinced that the microchip implant is the manifestation of the biblically portended mark of the beast. But the primary challenge to RFID implants remains the simple underlying question posed over and over again in response to the tech: Is this really necessary?
In 1998, the British scientist Kevin Warwick (known by the moniker “Captain Cyborg”) became the first human to receive an RFID microchip implant. But since then, development has been slow. Kayla Heffernan, a researcher in the department of computing and information systems at the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, blames the fact that chipping hasn’t yet been accepted widely on what she sees as “a chicken-and-egg problem.” “People don’t get them, because they’re not useful enough yet, but because there’s not a market, the devices [remain] relatively unchanged,” Heffernan says.
McMullan hopes to solve the second half of that problem as a means of invigorating the first. Shortly after last summer’s chip party, he began meeting with the cardiologist Michael Mirro, who serves as the director of the Parkview Research Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Mirro’s team and Three Square Chip developers are currently working on prototypes of RFID implants that will be able to continually monitor an individual’s vitals, enabling both patients and doctors to access highly accurate real-time information.
As McMullan describes it, the decision to develop RFID technology for medical purposes was motivated by more than just business savvy—it’s what intrigued him about the chips in the first place. The technology for better, potentially lifesaving solutions has long existed, he says, “it’s just, frankly, nobody decided to take it on.”
It’s an undeniably personal project for McMullan: His wife, Leah, suffers from a chronic nerve disorder caused by a medical accident in 2009 and relies on an implanted spinal-cord stimulator to manage her pain. When he talks to her about the chips, he says, she reminds him, “If I did not have that nerve stimulator in my back I would have committed suicide a long time ago.’”
Nerve stimulators are among the many implantable technologies that have leapt onto the health-care market in full force. Insertable cardiac monitors like the Reveal LINQ have replaced sometimes finicky stick-on patches as the most reliable option for patients with chronic heart conditions, and just two months ago, the FDA approved the first-ever long-term implantable continuous glucose-monitoring system for people with diabetes.
Three Square Chip says that its medical RFID implants will be powered by body heat, and McMullan’s plans to develop a single piece of hardware to aid patients with a wider range of conditions could make the chips more affordable than devices with more specialized (and limited) functions. “Many heart patients, right now, the only time they know they’ve got a problem is when they’re in the back of an ambulance,” McMullan says.
The company estimates that it will be selling chips capable of tracking a wearer’s live vital signs in a little more than a year, but a few other developments will come first. McMullan hopes that people will soon consider storing their medical information on encrypted RFID chips, and the group is also working on a way to make GPS-enabled chips available as an option for families to track relatives suffering from severe dementia—another use for the chips that poses both obvious benefits and legitimate concerns.
“There’s an interest but also a controversy with the actual GPS tracking,” says Luis Martinez, a preventative-medicine specialist in San Juan who has worked with McMullan on chip development since before last year’s media frenzy. “A lot of parents will feel actually safe if they can track real-time where their children are, given abductions, child trafficking, and all that.” But, he says, there are even more use cases: “Other populations … are being looked at for different reasons: law enforcement, or say you could use a GPS chip to identify registered sex offenders. I think it’ll be a case-by-case basis where different countries or different societies will decide.”
At the same time as the technology is becoming more powerful, people are becoming more comfortable with the notion of implantables. “If we think about 1998 to now, a lot has changed about the way we regard the body,” Heffernan says. This shift, she says, is traceable from body modifications such as tattoos and piercings all the way up to the chips McMullan is developing. “Pacemakers are routine surgery. Plastic surgery is less taboo now.” Hundreds of thousands of American bodies now contain cochlear implants, IUDs, nerve stimulators, artificial joints, implantable birth-control rods, and beyond. “There’s a trend toward putting devices inside the body, not just for life or death situations but for convenience, such as contraceptives, menstrual aids, contact lenses,” Heffernan says. “So as we’ve become more comfortable with this, insertables become more acceptable.”
In the year since Three Square Market’s chip party, the technology has become mundane to those surrounded by it. “We don’t think about it within the company really at all,” says the customer-service manager Melissa Koepp, who chose to get the implant. Her nonchipped colleagues are similarly nonchalant about the company’s futuristic update. In fact, one of the most common reasons employees opted not to receive the implant wasn’t about the implications of the technology at all: “When I watched them chip Todd,” says Katy Melstrom, the vice president of marketing, “and I saw the size of the needle, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll wait until we get a smaller version.’”
Yet for all of the implantable gadgets Americans use and the heaps of location-enabled gizmos we own, the first commercial device with both of these features will be significant. A teenager who brings her iPhone to the school bathroom with her can one day choose not to. If visiting a physician to remove the chip in her hand requires similar parental permissions to other invasive medical procedures, well, then, we know how that episode of Black Mirror ends.
The key to ensuring that RFID developments are used only as intended will be meaningful and active legislation developed to cut potential abuses off at the pass. In terms of workplace RFID implants, state legislatures are already behind. Before Three Square Market’s “chip party” last summer, five states, including Wisconsin, had RFID privacy laws preventing employer-mandated microchip implantation. Since then, only five more have introduced similar bills.
“I believe this technology is going to grow exponentially, in stages, and in a very short period of time,” says New Jersey State Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, whose bill will be voted on in the coming months. “We need to make sure that there’s full disclosure and consent.”
The legal tenets of disclosure and consent can be complicated enough in the workplace, but how will lawmakers and experts in security and tech react when required to define consent for a patient with advanced dementia? “Laws should not regulate technologies, but the actions we don’t want to happen,” Heffernan says. “This is the problem with some current regulation—it’s too slow because it focuses on technologies, not actions.”
But sooner or later, the laws will change, and the frightening will become familiar. After all, all it took in Sweden for RFID implants to become widespread and normalized was the simple appeal of never having to deal with a lost key. Whenever it happens, like waves of new tech before it, implantable RFID will bring us the next iteration of the yin-and-yang symptoms of technology we’ve seen time and time again. We will likely be healthier, safer, more informed, and more connected, and we will continue to disagree over whether it matters if our privacy and autonomy were the corresponding costs.