Primal Numbers – Hands Off

In this age of constant connectivity, it can be hard not to take your work home with you. Cell phones and the Internet blur the boundary between home and office, and many bosses expect employees to respond at all hours of the day. But would you be willing to let your job literally get under your skin?as in a microchip embedded in your hand? That’s the question workers at one Swiss office get to answer, and it should be a resounding no.

In theory, the premise sounds cool. As this BBC article notes, a high-tech office complex called Epicenter has offered tenants the chance to have RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips implanted in their hands. The chips, “about the size of a grain of rice,” will let people open doors, access photocopiers, and eventually pay at the building’s cafĂ©, all “with a touch of a hand.”

No more losing keys or swipe cards. No more trying to remember the passcode for the photocopier. And you don’t even need to bring your wallet with you to pay for lunch. Just swipe your hand across the reader?no need to search for cash or punch in a PIN.

But it gets better. According to Hannes Sjoblad, who’s involved with developing the tech, there may come a day when “big corporates and big government come to us and say everyone should get chipped?the tax authority chip, the Google or Facebook chip.” By getting familiar with and using the technology now, his theory is that people will be more informed if that day ever comes.

Sjoblad might be right. It could be a very good idea to know the benefits and pitfalls of using the chips before the government or corporations demand that an implanted RFID is required to access their services. But there are a lot of reasons to be wary.

First, there’s the simple question of biology. If an employee’s implant becomes infected, who’s responsible for covering sick time or medical bills? With all the recent stories about insurance companies using loopholes to get out of paying travel coverage, It’s not hard to imagine health benefits being denied because the insurer claims an employee didn’t care for the incision site properly.

It also raises the question of whether RFID chips might one day be mandatory to replace, say, a driver’s licence or health card. Would people need to carry a special waiver to prove that their body rejected the implant?

There are also bound to be issues with the technology itself. We’ve all stood in line at the checkout and watched someone tap an RFID-enabled credit card. Sometimes the technology fails. There’s a glitch in the chip, or maybe a problem with the reader. Perhaps It’s an older card that doesn’t work with the latest style of readers. The same thing can happen with access cards that open the doors to your building.

With a physical object, like a credit card or employee badge, It’s easy to replace them. A chip in your hand? Time to open that incision and upgrade your hardware. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have the bank send out a replacement card than have minor surgery?no matter how minor it is.

Then there’s the question of security. Not in the sense of data privacy. No data is truly secure, not even when It’s stored by the government. As this Huffington Post article reports, “more than a million Canadians may have had their private information compromised by data breaches within the federal government over the last ten years.”

No, there’ll be different security concerns if it becomes common to walk around with our keys, credit cards, and other personal data embedded in our hands. Special RFID-blocking wallets can prevent a crook from skimming data off your credit card or passport, but what protection is there if that same data is on a chip in your hand?

That’s not to say there aren’t huge benefits to embedded-chip technology. They’ve been used to keep track of pets and livestock for years. But pigs and Pomeranians don’t carry their banking info or office keys around on their tracking chips.

But are we really ready to start embedding RFID chips in humans? Until someone can offer clear solutions to those concerns, and others, maybe those Swiss office workers would be wise to say hands off.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.