As tech continues to move ahead at rapid speed, it has raised many ethical questions. One of the concerns steadily growing over the years is the ability to track people. It happens all day every day. You figure people are tracked through what they buy, where they go (mobile) and, in some cases, what they are doing (cameras, RFID and other tech devices).

Clearly, in today's society there are digital footprints we leave everywhere, but what about how  these prints are followed? An amazing level of capability has been developed, but how far should we let it go?

What about embedding chips in humans? Should that ever be a "thing"? 

A Little Background and History

Many years ago a Florida-based corporation named Applied Digital developed a small device called the VeriChip. This chip was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October 2004 and, with this blessing, was permitted to be implanted in humans.

Many hospitals had even begun to equip themselves with chip readers after the FDA approval since the VeriChip was reportedly ready to roll in preparation for mass use. [1] Initially, this chip was marketed for medical purposes, but its capabilities stretched so much further, it was later also used for security and automated data collection. [3]

A Slippery Slope

At the time of VeriChip's approval, many people felt it was disconcerting the way the technology was being used, or depending on one's perspective, misused. Society has become extremely reliant on technology and, as a result, less reliant on sound human decision-making. Often computers run in the background and most people are likely unaware of their existence. Is it possible society is becoming complacent in how technology is being used? Are we at the point where we might not bat an eye to the idea of an RFID chip or other tracking device embedded in our bodies? Is the perceived convenience (which is also highly debatable) of it worth the trade-offs?

Ethical Issues With Embedding Chips in Humans

There are a lot of questions associated with this issue; the main ones being responsibility and ethics. The big question surrounding technology and ethics is, "Just because we can, does it mean we should?" For instance, is it morally responsible to insert computerized chips into humans?

Many decisions made in today's digital society should first weigh the values of security and privacy when determining whether the decision is right or wrong. In the case of implanted chips, you could look at the obvious potential for invasion of privacy involved if everyone was implanted with computer chips, but some might view security or convenience as the more important value and embrace the protective issues manufacturers claim it could give for people.

Others might see it as plain creepy.

RFID chip implanted into a person
Credit: Amal Graafstra via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Author describes this photo as being taken shortly after a microchip was inserted into his body.

The U.S. government had already been talking about using RFID technology in a national ID card when the VeriChip was developed. Several states in the meantime jumped on the bandwagon. [5] 

If this type of chip were to become widespread in use, the question begs asking if it is possible the government may eventually want to use the chips in place of a national ID cards? During its production, the VeriChip wasn't equipped for such use, however, if it had been implemented into the mainstream, would it really have been much of a stretch to modify and expand its purposes from medical to beyond? If this were to occur, how long would it be until criteria was changed and this type of chip deemed a necessity and used for other reasons?  Convenience and perceived security are alluring possibilities.

Especially, now that newer chips apparently are on the market, including ones that are designed to work in conjunction with mobile. A quick search in June 2016 about tracking chips brings up several articles. Highlights include: [9], [10], [11]

  • A man agreeing to have one for a year as a volunteer (for research).
  • A 15-year-old who injected himself with one without the knowledge of his parents.
  • A healthcare facility shocked to find a patient had one inserted and was a victim of human trafficking.

Privacy Erosion as the Future Arrives

In this day of high security it can easily be argued these chips need to be used in order to protect the public with higher standards of safety. While technology has dramatically changed and even enhanced our lives, it has also contributed to the erosion and deterioration of privacy. Will future generations even perceive privacy as a value? For years, many people felt no hesitance giving out their social security numbers the way one would share a phone number (although, with the rise of identity theft, this trend has changed).

Privacy wasn't always taken so lightly but, as these tiny implantable devices are created, it really makes one wonder how and why privacy became so easily disregarded?

Back in the day, VeriChip had also marketed other products geared towards infant protection and wandering prevention. These were not implanted chips, but attachable devices, however, once these products had been created, it appeared Applied Digital had identified a niche to market towards "missing persons." What would happen if it became more cost-effective to modify the chips to replace current devices and move towards physically attachment to the body? After all, chips already had FDA approval. There had been discussion of implanting chips in children to track their whereabouts. If this actually began to occur at some point down the road, it seems an implanted chip could eventually be perceived as the "norm" just like it has been established for pets for some time now.

If the VeriChip, or a product like it, was to become widely accepted it could create further issues. Is it possible people will continue to become desensitized to privacy issues over time? Will society give a thumbs up with a positive response to these chips and similar devices? If kids grow up having chips implanted in them, they will grow up thinking this is standard. These children will be the next generation of politicians and decision makers and they won't see a thing out of the ordinary with having chips inserted into people.

Children today already have no idea what life was like before 24/7 cartoons, cable television, mobile, microwaves, the Internet, iPods, GameBoys, and other technologies that have become meshed in society. Accepting embedded chips could theoretically have long-reaching consequences in terms of what future laws get passed because it will be seen as the norm. Forever changing society with no going back.

board - binary computers
Credit: Geralt/Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

Security Issues

There is also the issue of securing the chips. With every new technology there is something to compromise its integrity. Anything or anyone having too much power is seldom a good thing. If widely used implanted chips were to occur this would open up a wide spectrum of ways security could be compromised. In 2006, reports emerged on the lack of encryption and ease of cloning VeriChips. [2][8] With hacking and breaches so prominent now, one can't help but wonder about how secure these more recent devices really are?

Is either the security or privacy value more important than the other? There has to be some sort of balance, even with some trade-offs. Decisions should be made carefully, thinking "outside the box" to recognize possible consequences that may arise due these choices. No technology is 100 percent secure, and those in decision-making positions need to keep that foremost in mind.

Note: This article was originally written in 2007 and published on another platform. It was updated in February 2014, where at that time the VeriChip had been taken off the market and either sold or spun off into a separate company.  At the time of the 2014 update, any attempt to visit an Applied Digital website led to a broken or expired link. (In 2016 it appears another company may be using that domain name). But as noted above, other implantable devices have made their way onto the market.

While technology is valuable and can offer solutions, just because its available doesn't mean it should be the answer to certain problems. Technology should enhance human intelligence, not replace it. Society should really think hard about the consequences when looking at implanting computer chips in humans.

For now it seemed society was safe from embedding chips in humans, but it appears that may no longer be the case.

What do you think? Just because we "can", does it mean we "should"? Or would chips be going too far in our increasingly tech-dependent society?

Credit: Jacob Botter via Flickr/CC by 2.0