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Opportunities, Concerns and What Could Be Next

Imagine a new kind of brain interface where technology has the potential to treat a wide range of neurological disorders to restore sensory and movement functions.

According to Elon Musk, we are heading into a world where we can “solve schizophrenia and autism.”

How? Through new microchips implanted in the brain that — according to experts — will cure illnesses.


According to the website for Neuralink, a brain implant company co-founded by Musk, “The initial goal of our technology will be to help people with paralysis to regain independence through the control of computers and mobile devices. Our devices are designed to give people the ability to communicate more easily via text or speech synthesis, to follow their curiosity on the web, or to express their creativity through photography, art or writing apps.”

In another related article in 2021, Musk said, “Neuralink’s working well in monkeys, and we’re actually doing just a lot of testing and just confirming that it’s very safe and reliable, and the Neuralink device can be removed safely.”

He added, “We hope to have this in our first humans — which will be people that have severe spinal cord injuries like tetraplegics, quadriplegics — next year [2022], pending FDA approval.”

Another company, Synchron Inc., is also working on the same challenges and appears to be ahead of Neuralink in this new world of brain implants. According to Fortune, “The company plans to place a device called Stentrode, which is smaller than a matchstick, in the brain to help paralyzed patients control digital devices like computer cursors through their thoughts. The implant works by communicating via a tiny wire with a second implant in the chest. A transmitter then sends signals to a computer outside the body, near the patient.”

So who could possibly be against helping paralyzed patients?

This topic of chip implants in humans has consistently received a lot of interest and attention because of the potential positive health outcomes. Nevertheless, the majority of reactions were negative, even hostile, when Musk’s longer-term vision (of enhancing humans in a variety of ways) was discussed.

When I first published a blog in 2017 describing how the employees at Three Square Market, a technology company in Wisconsin, had a small chip injected in their hands for security convenience, the reactions on LinkedIn were overwhelmingly negative.

And when another blog post was released in November 2018 describing how chip implants would become the next big privacy debate, there was an even greater negative response to the concept, with hundreds of comments saying “NEVER!”

Here’s an excerpt from that blog that has been quoted numerous times in media publications all over the world: “Implanting chips in humans has privacy and security implications that go well beyond cameras in public places, facial recognition, tracking of our locations, our driving habits, our spending histories, and even beyond ownership of your data. This topic touches upon your hand, your heart, your brain and the rest of your body — literally. This new development is set to give a very different meaning to ‘hacking the body’ or biohacking. While cyber experts continue to worry about protecting critical infrastructure and mitigating security risks that could harm the economy or cause a loss of life, implanted chips also affect health but add in new dimensions that conflict with people’s religious beliefs.”

As I have interacted on this topic with hundreds of people, the (unscientific) feedback I have received is that the technology is welcome for medical purposes like curing diseases. However, when made available as an optional tool for convenience, most people respond, “No, thank you!”

As described in the November 2018 post, the privacy implications are vast, and many people fear that the technology could be misused by public- and private-sector organizations. Recent experiences with Facebook and other social media companies have increased those fears. Unlike your smartphone, which you can leave at home, an implanted microchip will always be tracking your movements.

COULD MICROCHIP IMPLANTS BE USED FOR VACCINE RECORDS?

So why bring this topic up again now?

A series of articles came out in late 2021 on how a “Microchip implanted in your skin could be your COVID vaccine passport.” Here’s an excerpt:

“A rice-sized microchip implanted under your skin could become your vaccine passport.

“A Swedish tech startup says its device could be customized to display people’s COVID-19 vaccination records, according to a video the South China Post posted Friday on Twitter. …

“The chip uses near-field communication (NFC) to send the data to devices, including smartphones, that can read them.”

This article from October 2021 goes into detail on “The Opportunities and Fears of Human Microchipping.”

When I brought this microchip topic up recently in a LinkedIn post, the comments were almost completely against this suggestion. Here are a few examples:

Allison Dolan: “It’s one thing for techies and others to get chips so they can open doors and pay for snacks with the wave of their hand. Quite another for US gov agency to promote anything involving tracking of any citizen activity (perhaps in incarcerated populations?)”

Lori Albert: “Not only NO, but NEVER. Think identity theft is bad now? How about waking up to find your bank account cleared out? Or when the bio sensors sending your body readouts show inactivity and they refuse to pay you or subtract credits because of it?”

Nathan Tothrow: “I wouldn’t expect too many people would sign up for this. But 30 years ago I wouldn’t have expected you would get people to put all their personal data on a pocket-sized RF transponder and keep it with them everywhere they go so marketers can build behavioral profiles on them. Convenience is the carrot that will lead the donkey off the cliff.”

Michael McLaughlin: “Great post! My concern with this type of tech is gov’t overreach — but not in the ‘big brother’ persistent surveillance kind of way. My concern is the application of the third-party doctrine by law enforcement in obtaining info from data handlers without a warrant. The most recent Supreme Court case on the issue is Carpenter v. U.S. The Court ruled warrants are needed for gathering cell phone tracking information, remarking that cell phones are almost a ‘feature of human anatomy,’ ‘when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.’ Because implanted chips would only collect location info when scanned to go into a restaurant, theater, or other similar establishment — requiring some choice on the part of the ‘host,’ Carpenter likely would not apply. In other words, because chips wouldn’t be considered ‘persistent monitoring,’ police could subpoena the data handler to find location info on anyone with a chip. Imagine a crime is committed in DC. The police could subpoena Epicenter to find anyone scanned in a 5-block radius that night and round up patrons with criminal records — all without a warrant.”

Shari Gribbin: “[I am] very pro-vaccine. Anti-microchips for anything whatsoever and tracking. I’ll show you my QR code in my phone thanks (peanut gallery jokes on that and tracking welcome, it still isn’t planted in my body). You’ll never get me to understand how so many people are rushing to let Musk implant them with chips. Many of whom are in the crowds that are worried about government chips in various nonsensical things.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

I was recently surprised to see a Lansing, Mich., body piercing shop start to offer chip implants.

That wlns.com article begins this way: “Have you ever thought about being able to unlock your car or pay at the store just by waving your hand? A body piercing expert is bringing the future to Lansing with a new product. … Lanier was interested in technology, so he combined it with his love of body modification to come up with the idea to offer a modification straight from science fiction. … The implants will run around $200 and Lanier said he’s excited to be the first to offer them in Lansing.”

And finally, I want to re-emphasize the viewpoint that, even if this technology becomes widely adopted only on a voluntary basis, it could later become mandatory down the road. That is the main concern of most of the opponents of microchip implants.

The recent Supreme Court ruling on vaccine mandates seems to have calmed the fears of those who bemoan more government mandates in more aspects of life. However, just the suggestion of a linkage between vaccine mandates and vaccine passports using microchip implants is enough to raise alarm bells for many privacy advocates.

One big question remains — Will this USA Today headline/prediction from August 2017 ever come true?: “You will get chipped — eventually.”

Most people I speak with hope not.

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