RFID implants: do we really need them?

Over the years, I have been fortunate in that I have gotten to go on a lot of cruises. One of the things that I found really interesting the first time that I went on a cruise was how my cruise card served so many different purposes. For those who haven’t ever had the opportunity, the cruise lines typically issue you a credit card-sized card on disembarkation day. This card quickly becomes an essential item throughout the cruise. It serves as a room key, a credit card for onboard purchases, a passport for when you go ashore (you still need a real passport to cruise, but the card gets you on and off the ship), and in some cases, the card is even used to hold dining or theatre reservations. In other words, the card acts as proof that you are you, and nearly every personalized aspect of the cruise is tied to your card.

Of course, the cruise lines are not the only companies to adopt this type of technology. A few years ago, my wife and I decided to spend a weekend at a well known theme park. Before we had even left home, we received a pair of RFID bracelets in the mail. These bracelets acted as keys to the door of our hotel room, our admission ticket to the park, and could be used to make purchases within the resort.

It seems evident that RFID and similar competing technologies are already being used on a massive scale. By tying personal identity to a device such as a bracelet or a card, resorts and cruise ships are providing personalized and hassle free experiences to their guests.

Even so, any technology carries with it the potential for misuse, abuse, or even just unintended consequences. Consider, for example, a technology that seems completely benign: the stereo in your car. It’s a relatively simple entertainment device that has been used in one form or another for generations. If misused, however, it could cause hearing damage, a traffic accident, and it might even subject the listener to questionable content. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against car stereos, and I’m certainly not a safety nut (I have a lot of dangerous hobbies). I merely want to make the point that any technology, no matter what it is, can potentially cause harm through abuse.

Few technologies carry a higher potential for abuse than RFID implants. That is not to say that the technology is without its benefits. Veterinarians have been implanting RFID chips into pets for many years, and the technology has helped countless lost pets to be returned to their owners.

Although experiments involving implanting RFID chips into humans have been going on for over a decade, implants have only recently begun to see widespread acceptance in some areas. Global Research last year reported that Australia was the first country to begin implanting its population with RFID chips. Interestingly, the article points out that the Australian government is not mandating the implants, but rather using a propaganda campaign to convince people that the implants will help them to become “superhuman.” For example, a person who has been implanted might be able to open a door, simply by waving their hand near the lock.

In order to understand the potential for abuse, it is important to understand how an RFID implant works. The implant consists of a small cylinder that is roughly about the size of a grain of rice. This cylinder contains the RFID chip, and is surgically implanted just beneath the skin.

There are a number of different RFID chips types in existence, but the ones that are being implanted into humans are typically passive. This means that the RFID chip is not actively transmitting anything (at least not by itself). Hence, the chip is not a GPS tracking device. In fact, passive RFID chips do not even contain a battery.

An RFID reader uses an electromagnetic field to stimulate the RFID chip, and reads the data from the chip. The chip’s data can be almost anything, but it is becoming increasingly common for RFID chips to be coded with a barcode like number.

In the case of an RFID chip that is implanted into a human, the chip would likely contain a number that uniquely identifies the person. The implantee could therefore be electronically recognized by having their unique number programmed into an RFID enabled system. For example, an electronic door lock might be programmed with the RFID identification numbers of anyone who should be allowed access.

This is exactly what makes RFID implants so powerful, and allows those who have the implants to become “superhuman.” Those who have been chipped will be able to use their chips to do more and more things as the RFID standard becomes more widely adopted. It is conceivable that an implanted RFID chip could replace keys (home, office, car, etc.), passwords, credit cards, passports, and much, much more.

Some critics of RFID implants have been quick to point out that the technology and its application bear an eerie similarity to a prophecy from the book of Revelations (13:16-17) which says “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” The fear is that it may eventually become impossible to make purchases (or to function in a modern society) without an RFID implant.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to promote a particular religious point of view, nor am I ridiculing anyone who believes in biblical prophecy. My objective is only to write a balanced article by presenting multiple sides of an issue.

Even if you take biblical prophecy out of the picture, RFID implants still carry a huge potential for abuse. Given the fact that RFID readers and RFID writers are readily available for purchase today, what is to stop an identity thief from spoofing someone’s RFID chip in an effort to gain access to everything that has been tied to that person’s chip?

Presumably there will be some safeguards in place that will help to guard against identity theft, but I just can’t help thinking about something that a friend told me recently. A few weeks ago, I went shopping with a friend who was visiting from Australia. While we were at the mall, she made the comment that her handbag was electronically shielded. I asked her if she had run into problems with a thief using an RFID scanner to steal her credit card number. She said that she had not experienced that particular problem, but that some of the stores where she lives use RFID scanners that are so sensitive, that her card was accidentally charged when she happened to walk too close to a kiosk where someone else was checking out. With that in mind, just imagine some of the mishaps that might occur if everyone ran around with a chip in their hand.

Whether in favor or opposed to RFID implants, people seem to have very strong feelings about the technology. Some imagine all of the really cool ways in which the technology could potentially be used, while at least some others equate getting an RFID implant with taking the mark of the beast.

Technology by itself is neither good nor evil. It’s how the technology is used that counts. RFID implants carry enormous potential, but there are also countless ethical issues that will have to be addressed before the implants will be widely accepted.

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1 thought on “RFID implants: do we really need them?”

  1. Jean-Luc Lejoly

    I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other, but we can dumb down the RFID by comparing it to something more simple that has been used in the past (like between 1940 to 1945). Yes in Germany then ID numbers were tattooed on Jews and others that were send to the concentration camps. these tats then Identified the wearers. In society the Jews had to carry a Star. Both Ideas/methods yielded the same end-result, the access or denial to certain services or places or goods.

    The RFID chip is nothing else but the same thing a little less visible. It can give lots of benefits and lots of abuses. (but then those same things can be obtained with or without the technology.

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