Monday, December 10, 2018

Microchipping People: Convenience or Concern?

For some years now, we have had radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology available to make transponder chips small enough to be implanted into living beings such as dogs or people.  Almost no one objects to placing an identifying microchip in a pet, which in a legal sense is a piece of property like the sunglasses you might buy at a store.  But some lingering sense of the difference between humans and everything else gives us pause when we start talking about microchipping people. 

That sense hasn't stopped some four thousand Swedes from getting microchip implants, mostly from a startup called Biohax International.  It's interesting that Biohax's founder Jowan Ă–sterlund was at one point a professional body piercer, a profession which itself couldn't exist unless a segment of the population had already let down its guard somewhat concerning the idea of affixing pieces of metal to one's person. 

According to an NPR report, Swedes have high levels of trust for institutions such as their government, banks, railroad companies, and other organizations.  And microchipped Swedes are now able to use their implanted microchips instead of train tickets or credit cards for transportation, and can simply wave an implanted hand at a door-lock sensor instead of fumbling in a wallet for a pass card. 

A report in the Economist last summer mentioned something that often comes up in U. S. discussions of personal microchips:  a passage in the New Testament Book of Revelation about "the mark of the beast."  When the reporter asked Ă–sterlund about this concern, his reply was dismissive:  "people once thought the Beatles were the Antichrist."

Leaving such eschatalogical concerns aside for the moment, what are the other potential downsides of either voluntary or compulsory personal microchipping?   First, there is a privacy concern.  The memory capacity on such chips will only increase in the future.  Depending on what sorts of data are stored on the chip, for example medical information, you could inadvertently allow strangers to access your most intimate medical secrets.  With a wallet card, you can always refuse to show it to somebody or even keep it in a shielded enclosure to prevent unauthorized readings.  But if an RFID chip is implanted in the web of skin between your right thumb and forefinger (a typical location), the only way to prevent unauthorized access for sure seems to be wearing foil-lined gloves all the time. 

And there is another concern which is hard to express, but I'll try.  A person's identity cannot be realized in isolation.  That is to say, who we are is formed in the process of relating to other people.  I hold an appointment as a full professor at Texas State University.  But if somebody picked me up and dropped me off by myself on a desert island, my status as a full professor would become effectively void, because I would no longer be among the people who recognize me as such.  And so the ways by which we are recognized influences our own ideas about who we are.

We are already pretty far down the road I'm trying to describe, in that we are used to identifying ourselves by numbers, passwords demanded by all sorts of online systems, and by other impersonal means such as swipe cards and even biometric sensors.  In ways that are hard to quantify or even detect, but which I am convinced are nonetheless real, these impersonal or mechanical means of identifying ourselves do things to our self-concept—things that I am convinced are not that helpful.  But at least with passwords and biometric ID methods and wallet cards, these are all things that leave my bodily integrity alone. 

With a microchip, that bodily integrity is breached.  Now an actual physical part of myself, a foreign body, has become an essential part of my public identity.  And make no mistake, once people find out (and the technology allows) that one little implanted microchip can replace a fistful of wallet cards and a brain full of memorized passwords, they will become very popular, as many Swedes have already discovered.  And as night follows day, those chips will themselves become things of value—more valuable in some cases than the persons harboring them.  I am unaware that anyone has yet tried to extract another person's microchip under duress, but sooner or later, you can be sure it will happen, leaving the victim with a bloody hand and the thief with the victim's identity, at least until the victim can call a hotline and report that his microchip was stolen.  And Biohax had better start putting such a hotline system in place soon, if they haven't already.

I'll save my thoughts on the mark of the beast for last.  Christians who take the New Testament seriously, as God's word revealed to man, are nevertheless puzzled by the last book of the Bible.  Revelation is an example of a type of writing called apocalyptic literature (the Greek word for the book is "apocalypse") that was popular around the first and second centuries A. D.  It is highly symbolic, and unfortunately the keys to much of the symbolism have been lost.  So no one knows for sure who the two beasts are of Rev. 13, in which we are told that the second of the two beasts will require everyone who wishes to buy or sell anything to receive a "mark" on their hand or forehead. 

This is bad news for them, because in the next chapter we hear from an angel who says, "If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God's wrath," and it goes downhill from there, all the way to torment with fire and sulphur.   This explains the almost automatic and sometimes hysterical opposition from some Christian groups to any hint of a compulsory identification program that leaves marks or other things on one's body. 

I respect these concerns to the extent that I do not personally wish to have a microchip installed in my person.  But I don't necessarily agree with those who tell microchipped people that they're bound to be playing with fire.

Sources:  The National Public Radio report on Swedish microchipping appeared on the NPR website on Oct. 22, 2018 at  I also referred to The Economist website, specifically an article carried on Aug. 2, 2018 at 

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