Device implant

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X-ray showing implanted RFID devices, courtesy

A device implant, sometimes referred to as a microchip, is a small technological device embedded under the skin. In humans, these are types of integrated circuit devices, microchip, or RFID transponders (radio frequency identifications). Each RFID microchip contains a unique individual identification (ID) number and transmits a unique signal through radio waves which are picked up by a reader and stored into a database. Law enforcement, security personnel, healthcare providers, and private individuals use device implants to hold identification and contact information. The protection and collection of data in a device implant is a cause for concern as the use of such information along with the consent and monitoring of patients is an ethical dilemma.


In 1998, the first known case of a human receiving an implant or microchip occurred. British scientist Kevin Warwick became the first human to test RFID surgery and demonstrate the purpose of a human microchip. However, the chip was removed 9 days later. [1] Warwick's demonstration paved the way for other scientists such as Mark Gassnon, who purposefully uploaded a computer virus onto his microchip, making himself the first human to be infected by a computer virus and he has no plans to remove his implant.[2] Since then, device implants have been created for many different purposes, both beneficial and sometimes harmful to society.

Physical Makeup

Current devices are usually cylindrical in shape and have approximately the size of a grain of rice. The most common implant location is between the thumb and forefinger. Both Human implants and microchips in animals are contained in a glass case, which is not indestructible but is hygienic for sub-dermal implanting. [3] Most implants rely on RFID technology while some qualify as near-field communication (NFC) chips, a type of high-frequency radio wave communication. They do not require any charge or battery power and only function through radio wave sensing via a small antenna.[3]


RFID is a process in which items are uniquely identified using radio waves. NFC is a branch within the family of RFID technology. NFC is designed to be a secure form of data exchange[4] The unique feature of NFC devices is that it allows for peer-to-peer communication in which the NFC device is able to act both as a reader and as a tag[4]. A popular example of NFC devices being used is contactless payments.

Current uses

Human-device implant technology has proliferated over the years as it allows a way to access information and store ticket codes, passwords, and more. Because of this, it is reducing the need to carry keys, IDs, or remember login information. [5] It can be used to unlock cars, offices, and homes, or log on to technological devices or systems, such as phones or laptops. [3] Implants that are NFC compatible can also store Bitcoin or other virtual wallet addresses. In Sweden, the devices can even carry citizens' regional train tickets.[3]

Jowan Osterlund holds an implant, courtesy

In recent years, the company Dangerous Things has become a leading producer and proponent of human device implants. [6] Currently, they assume that there are between 50,000 to 100,000 people worldwide who have implants.[3]
Jowan Osterlund started the firm Biohax International after a career as a professional body piercer. He says, "Having different cards and tokens verifying your identity to a bunch of different systems just doesn't make sense… Using a chip means that the hyper-connected surroundings that you live in every day can be streamlined." [7]


The healthcare industry has begun utilizing device implants for patient monitoring. Firms such as Three Square Market have begun seeking markets for GPS tracking chips for patients with mental health disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia. Some chips have been developed to monitor vital health signs, and contain patient's personal medical records and/or medication lists. [8] [9] Devices such as cardioverter defibrillators[10] have assisted the healthcare system by allowing doctors to monitor vital signs of patients outside of the office. There has been research conducted on an implant that would stop neurological seizures. The device is implanted in the brain so at the first detection of a seizure the implant would release a brain chemical to stop the seizure. [11] This implant could also possibly be used to treat brain tumors or Parkinson's. Currently, there is ongoing research at creating a "Neural Lace," or mesh network injected into the brain to monitor and deliver targeted treatments to the brain. CEO Elon Musk founded the neurotechnology company Neuralink, with the aim to "treat serious brain diseases in the short-term, with the eventual goal of human enhancement," via the neural mesh interface. It comes the implication of humans being competitive against A.I.'s with human-level or higher intelligence. Despite efforts in the industry to build the interface, academic researchers like Charles Lieber at Harvard University have been testing lace-like electronic mesh that "you could literally inject" into three-dimensional "synthetic and biological structures like the brain." In 2016, his team published a paper in order to prove that mesh-brain implant can integrate into a mouse brain and record stable neuronal recordings for at least 8 months. [12]


William Einthoven created the technology of electrocardiography, which held the ability of using electing impulses to identify irregularities and other problems within the heart. He received the Nobel Prize in the field of Physiology for his work in 1924. Taking Einthoven's lead, many others decided to take up similar challenges in the field. In 1932, Dr. Albert Hyman invented the first ever version of the pacemaker, which was powered by a hand crank and required a needle to periodically deliver an electric pulse to the heart to regulate its functioning. He called it the "Artificial Pacemaker" and was the first one to do so. Although he was unable to interest manufacturers in his machine due to the danger presented by the poking of the needle, he was still able to make a few copies and attain marginal success. [13] [14] [15]

Pacemakers are the most commonly used artificial implants in the world today. In the year 2016 alone, over 1.14 million pacemakers were implanted across the world. [16] The number of pacemakers being distributed is constantly increasing, and over a million pacemakers and 200,000 defibrillators are implanted every year.[17] Pacemakers are common for people that suffer from Bradycardia, a condition wherein a person's heartbeat is lower than the normal average of 60-100 beats per minute. By regulating the heartbeat, pacemakers ensure that the body gets the right amount of circulation. While there are limit risks associated with using pacemakers, they can be susceptible to causing infection at the site of the implant. There are also various limitations that arise for people with pacemakers, with regards to their proximity with electromagnetic fields and other tools that might stimulate the device.

Aiding the Color Blind

The industry began to create devices that could aid physically-disabled patients. One device has been created to treat those who are color-blind. This chip is implanted in the brain and works by playing sounds corresponding to the wavelengths of the colors. [18]

Personal Blood Tester

At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, researchers have created a personal implantable device so individuals can test their own blood. The implant has five sensors, a Bluetooth transmitter, and a basic power source to provide an immediate analysis of the blood. The radio transmits the results immediately to a physician. [19]

Hearing Loss Treatments

Cochlear implants are small electronic devices that help repair damaged areas of the inner ear, or the cochlea. They bypass damaged inner area ear hair cells, and directly stimulate the ear's auditory nerves. The signals generated by the nerves are directly communicated to the brain, which interpreted them as sounds. The implant is comprised of a microphone, to pick up sounds from the environment; a speech processor, which selects and arranges sounds; a transmitter and stimulator, which converts signals from the speech processor into electric impulses; and an electrode array, which collects impulses from the stimulator and sends them to auditory nerve regions. [20]

Firearm regulation

Amal Graafstra has begun developing an implant-activated ‘smart gun’, which can only be fired by the person with the matching implant ID. The idea is that this would make firearms more secure by limiting them to a single user. [21] Currently, the production and utilization of smart gun technology are not feasible due to external factors that affect its ability to perform. Leveraging RFID's as device implant technology would increase the reliability of the owner's gun performance and add another level of control by only allowing guns to operate with the owners recognized RFI.

Popular culture depiction

The 2018 movie Upgrade focuses on certain styles of human device implants. The movie's characters have guns implanted in their arms and some had implanted devices that connect to their brain stem to control their bodily functions. In this movie, one of the devices becomes so smart that it instructs his user on how to hack himself to give the device full control over their operator without consent. This raises a pressing ethical question that will need to be addressed prior to this situation becoming a reality. With these type of implants, future engineers will need to predict the worst possible scenarios so they can take the necessary precautions in the design process to avoid these issues. This will allow them to build trust and allow humans the option to override or control when necessary. This is recommended in order to ensure that a scenario, such as the one in Upgrade, never happens.

Actress Bailey Madison plays foster child with RFID implant

In 2010 Law & Order SVU episode "Locum", a child complains that her foster parents threatened not to let her outside unless she agreed to have an RFID chip implanted into her arm. The detectives investigate further by visiting a company that produces RFID chip implants used in hospitals and to track children. They learn that it is not advanced enough to track anyone as a GPS would, but that the child would be identifiable if the chip was read.

A popular episode of Black Mirror called Arkangel showcases the future of technology in which a small microchip implanted into a child's temple allows parents to track, monitor, and even control the experiences their children have all via iPad. Sara, the main character with this implant, has a very sheltered experience growing up as all of the frightening experiences, curse words, and inappropriate images she encounters are blurred by the 'parental control' setting on her mother's iPad. Sara's mother continues to use this program as Sara grows into her teenage years. Sara was previously under the impression that her mother had put away the iPad for good and was not aware of the fact that her mother was spying on her everyday life as she grew up and started doing more adult things. Sara's mother attempts to keep her daughter safe but is in fact greatly betraying her trust and spying on her daughter, which is breaking any sense of privacy that Sara thought she had. Near the end, Sara discovers that her mom had witnessed her do drugs and have sex, and upon finding out that she had been betrayed and spied on by her mother, Sara runs away. This episode exemplifies the advancement of technology to be used for safety and security, but also how it pushes major boundaries when it comes to ethics.

Employer Uses

In 2017, the Wisconsin company Three Square Market made headlines after offering free microchipping to their employees instead of using an id card to swipe into work. In August 2018, it was announced that they were seeking to upgrade the initially simplistic devices to more powerful ones to include GPS tracking and voice activation. [8] At Three Square Market, a mid-sized company, nearly sixty percent of employees prefer to be inserted with a microchip oppose to carrying a physical id. Each chip costs 300 dollars.[22] The chip has more benefits than just tracking, as employees may use their chip to purchase snacks and other daily office things. The company is growing and so are the amount of employees that opt into the microchip.

Animal Microchip Implant

Example of animal microchip compared to a grain of rice

Upon adoption, pet owners may choose to have a microchip implanted into their pet as a unique form of identification.[23] It is a safe, cheap, and effective way to identify an animal so it can be reunited with its owner if it ever gets lost. Typically, the service is offered by veterinarians and shelters for roughly $50. The process is noninvasive and only causes temporary pain through a quick injection for the animal involved. The chip itself has no internal energy source so it will last the life of the pet. [24] Many companies have begun to offer multi-purpose microchips that go beyond just pet identification. These 'smart' microchips have abilities such as opening pet doors and pet feeders to ensure that only the right animal has access. [25]

Ethical considerations

While there is some concern for infection after implantation as swelling or slight discomfort may occur after insertion. Most companies work with experienced body piercers to reduce this health risk. However, on top of this risk there are many debates in regards to the ethical complexity of the implant devices.[3]


These microchip technologies call into question the right to privacy and if these devices can be considered an infringement on private information. If we assume that the technology became ubiquitous then any person could be identified in any location, which may be considered a violation of our privacy. As humans and computers continue to interact and as that interaction becomes more intuitive with the introduction of technologies such as implantation devices, our actions may become increasingly more monitored if these devices are used to track location and actions - if a person enters a building or goes the airport, that data would be stored. [26]

Luciano Floridi, in chapter five of his book, The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality, describes a scenario where there are four students living together and establishes the informational gap. The informational gap, Floridi says, is essentially that the less they know about each other, the more private there lives can be. The degree in which this informational gap exists is based on the "accessibility of their personal information." [27] Microchip technologies could potentially decrease this informational gap that we have with those around us and for those who are attempting to obtain this information unbeknownst to us. Not only would this violate our privacy, but even our physical privacy depending on why an individual would have a microchip implanted on them.

Informational friction would be necessary to prevent the violation of our privacy in regards to the implementation of microchip technologies. In his example of the students, the informational friction is related to how thin the walls may be, or if the walls are full-transparent, so anyone in the house with perfect hearing and eye sight can be able to over hear the intimate moments of a couple or see inside your room when you are in it by yourself.

Security Concerns

As the number of users and applications for device implant increase, such devices may be more likely to become targets of cyber attacks. For implants that utilize the RFID microchip, the limitations of the technology make it a vulnerable target. RFID microchips usually respond to any signal that requests information and they also don't maintain a history of readings, so there is no way of detecting or tracing attack even when it occurs.[28] Attacks on IMD (Implantable Medical Devices) may directly threaten a patient's life as existing devices possess significant security loopholes such as lacking a basic username/password authentication process.[28] Research has shown that successful attacks can be launched against clinically available pacemakers and insulin pumps, which can result in fetal consequences.

Potential attacks may include: gaining implanted RFID tag's unique ID to gain access to privileges exclusive to the tag owner, unauthorized reading of user's personal data including medical history, preventing the device from operating, malicious modification of the device's configuration parameters or triggering a device into action which may threaten health and life, etc.[28]

Even though cybercrime is no longer a novel concept, the intimidate relationship that implantable devices have with human body requires more modern solutions from legal and ethical perspective. Philosopher and Professor James Moor argues that as technological revolutions increase their social impact, ethical problems increase. Hence with the growing popularity of device implants, multiple fields of studies such as medical, legal, and technological need to work collaboratively to take a proactive approach in developing more sophisticated ethical analyses and solutions.[29]

Consent and Monitoring

Some, including John Halamka, MD points out that patients would have to provide consent for implantation before receiving a device. However, the progression of mental disease such as Alzheimer’s can make the timeline for this difficult for some to manage.[9] In real time, the sharing and storage of medical health records, location history, or access codes presents opportunities for companies or other bodies to exploit customers' data.

The American Medical Association regulated the ethics of RFID implants within the last 10 years to protect consumer health data.[1] Many fear that the data collected from these devices could be collected and aggregated and lost or shared without the owner’s consent. Similarly, there is a fear that the devices might be forced upon a certain group for surveillance or exploitation, compromising their freedom and privacy.[1]

In the future, ethical issues such as tracking employees or preferential hiring to those who agree to a chip may occur. [30] In a Pew Research Center study gauge public interest on microchip brain implants, 54% of participants see a future where these implants will be used but 69% are worried about the idea while only 34% are enthusiastic [31] One of the main concerns leading to this uneasiness is that people are fearful of whether or not this will be a permanent implant or something that is reversible. Another thing holding people back from accepting the idea of Device Implants is that they are concerned whether these will be moderated changed or if they will lead to larger alterations. Mainly, they were worried that if people were to get these implants, would they be better humans than others without them. It is a lot of speculation into what the future may hold, but peoples concerns are valid and should be taken into consideration.

Faulty Implants

Alleged lax monitoring in the past has led to numerous patients with devices and aids having to suffer. There have been cases where implants have not been thoroughly tested before being taken to market, leading to injuries and worse. In the UK alone, there have been 62,000 reports of incidents being caused by medical devices and 1004 of these cases have proved to be fatal. [32]

With the case of faulty medical device implants, it also becomes difficult to decide who is responsible. Some people believe it is the medical company, but others claim it could also be the doctor who performs the procedure, or the board that approves the devices for being safe. Having this up in air responsibility makes it difficult for the patients who were at fault to receive proper payment or return for the damages they have suffered.

Health Concerns

Various research spanning throughout the previous three decades has repeatedly linked microchip implants to the onset of malignant tumors in laboratory animals. Most notably, a study conducted in the mid 1990s by toxicology pathologist, Keith Johnson at Dow Chemical Company in Michigan received considerable attention.[33] Similar studies involving mice and rats found the rate of malignant tumor development in the injected laboratory rodents to range from 1 to 10 percent.[34] [35] Though these results have been adamantly labeled as inconclusive and not necessarily translational to human implants, the talk of microchips as a potential carcinogen certainly heightened public skepticism. However, the FDA, which previously approved the use of microchips in humans, continues to reassure the public that microchip implants are safe, and further caution the public from allowing correlation to imply causation in regards to these concerning studies.


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