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Microchipping humans: would you get a microchip under your skin?

26 July 2019

Technology follows us everywhere these days. What used to be a phone attached to the wall is now an entire universe in our pockets. Clunky desktop computers have been traded up for lightweight laptops. And where our wrists used to be reserved for simple watches and bracelets, they can now be decked out with all-encompassing, heart-monitoring, payment-making, text-message-sending smart devices.

Considering how much closer to ourselves we’re keeping technology, it makes sense for the next step to be keeping it inside our bodies, right? That’s what many people around the world think, including hundreds of Australians who have implanted microchips under their skin. But even though there are a fair few early adopters, others aren’t so sure.

Throughout history, technology has seen plenty of criticism and rumoured health risks, and microchips are no exception. So how valid are these concerns? Are they safe, or should we be cautious?

How do human microchips work?

Microchip devices are usually cylinder-shaped and the size of a grain of rice. They use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, to transmit information to a scanner. Examples of scanners include entryways to your home or workplace, or contactless payment systems, like the ones you use to tap and go with your debit card or mobile device.

In humans, microchip devices are inserted under the skin between the thumb and index finger. They have a unique identification number attached to them, which is how your information is transmitted to the scanner. They’re also inside a bio-inert glass, to lessen the risk of your body rejecting it. 

They’ve been said to hurt about as much as giving blood, and less than most body piercings. They leave a tiny scar that’s usually not noticeable after a few weeks.

Potential negative side effects of microchipping humans

Being such a new technology, it’s natural for people to have concerns and misconceptions about microchipping. Even though people have microchipped their cats and dogs for decades, there’s still uncertainty around how it can work in humans.

Here are some common questions.

Can you track someone with a microchip?

One of the main concerns many people have around human microchipping is whether the government can track their every move. Or, even worse, if their partners are able to.

This misconception might come from the fact that microchips have been used in our furry friends to identify them and monitor their movements. It’s important to remember, though, that you can’t simply find a cat or dog using their microchip; it’s only activated when it’s scanned by, say, a vet or pound.

In the same way, human microchips are only activated when they’re close to a relevant scanner. They don’t have batteries or in-built sensors (and certainly don’t have GPS capabilities). They work like the chip inside your credit card or FOB key, in that they’re only useful when near a scanner they’ve been programmed to interact with.

What are the health side effects of microchipping humans?

The long-term health risks of implanting microchips in humans is relatively unknown. On one hand, human microchipping has been greenlighted around the world by various authoritive bodies – including the FDA in America.

On the other hand, there’s been research suggesting cancerous tumors have formed in a number of microchipped rodents and dogs. Dr Katherine Albrecht, a consumer privacy advocate and known critic of RFID, compiled key findings from research conducted between 1990 and 2006.

She found that:

  • in at least 6 studies published between 1990 and 2006, causal links between microchipped rodents and cancer were found
  • tumors usually formed in the second year of the microchip being implanted, which translates to half a lifetime’s exposure in terms of rodent lifespan, and
  • the percentage of affected rodents in these 6 studies ranged between 0.8% - 10.2%.

Others have pointed out that these studies don’t look at the amount of tumors in rodents without microchips, so it’s impossible to say whether the technology was the cause. Either way, there’s still a bit of a question mark when it comes to potential health risks.

What are the security risks for microchipping humans?

This is, again, an area of great debate. There are concerns about how easy it is to hack a microchip. Although there aren’t any cases of this happening yet, could it become a security threat as more people adopt the technology?

There’s also the fact that people can’t remove the microchip themselves, which removes a user’s autonomy over their own body. Microchips can of course be removed safely, but only with the help of a professional. 

Potential benefits of microchipping humans

Microchips shouldn’t be seen as all doom and gloom, though. There are many potential benefits to the technology.

Starting with the obvious – convenience. How many times have you gotten to your front door and realised you’ve locked your keys inside? Or done the frantic pocket-pat-search to find that your wallet or purse isn’t where it was before?

Having a programmed microchip can allow you to have things like your debit card or keys always on hand – literally.

There are also predictions that microchips could help save lives. The technology hasn’t been developed yet, but in the future, medical professionals could be able to get all the important information they need to assess your health with a quick scan of your hand.

Do the potential benefits outweight the potential risks? For many, clearly they do. It could just be a case of new technology, new concerns (until it’s better understood and researched, anyway). Maybe one day pretty much everyone will have microchips under their skin; maybe we’ll move onto a new technology before then and it’ll become yesterday’s news.

For now at least, we can keep enjoying the incredible convenience of where technology has brought us. For example, most of us may not be able to pay for our dinner by waving our hand at the Eftpos machine, but Suncorp customers can do it with their phone.

Through the Suncorp App, you can use Apple Pay to swiftly make a debit card payment with your iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch. Pretty ‘handy’, right?

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