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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Technology getting under your skin and the ethical scratches therein

V.R. Manoj

January 30, 2013

An Overview of Bioethical Issues stemming from Implantable RFID microchips.

An Overview of Bioethical Issues stemming from Implantable RFID microchips


It is always important to understand the reasons we subject ourselves to different technological applications. For example, it may be absolutely essential to have a cell phone. However, it may not be so essential that the cell phone be loaded with the coolest video games. Likewise, while it is very important for implantable device technologies to evolve, their applications would have to be carefully monitored.

RFID tags have been used for several years now in the Industry for asset tracking and inventory control. Even the clothes we pick up from a mall have small RFID tags on them that is used to protect the shopkeeper against theft and pilferage.In fact, RFID tags are being sold for livestock identification and branding in a very normal way. But we don't bother about it unless it starts getting under our skin.

In more pleasant times, wearing a medical bracelet would be a welcome idea.The medical bracelet or even a flashcard with our medical information would be absolutely essential in times of a medical emergency where our conscious participation in the treatment process may not be available. It is even welcoming that healthcare systems in countries such as the USA may have actually begun to encourage implantable devices that can track and monitor patient activity.

More recently, a controversial RFID chip much akin to what Prof.Warwick implanted himself with did the rounds in popular media. Hailed as the next level of ensuring patient safety; the VeriChip quickly became infamous among religious and cultural circles which were not entirely unfounded. You can read more about such concerns here and here. The VeriChip is no longer being marketed under the same name or company is not so new at all.

A major concern was that it could lead to tumours or infections in the biological system. Whilst this may not seem so obvious in a clinical situation ie., the sterile environment of a hospital; it is very much likely that other establishments may not follow such stringent aseptic measures whilst implanting such devices. The quality of the materials may also not be of the highest quality if used commercially. The funny thing is my fears have already come to fruition. In a famous night club, VIP passes include implanting the patron with an RFID implantable chip [ Read More here about the Baja beach club RFID implants in Barcelona ]. It was a clever way to gain the attention of the media but leaves open a large amount of questions. I have always had a very serious question when it comes to implantable chips. It is made of glass and if the person bumps that part really hard against a surface, could it not lead to serious internal injury even at the skin level ? The broken glass shards would be extremely difficult and painful to pull off with a tweezer.Interestingly enough, the modified Chip is now FDA approved. You can read the company's (VeriTeq) press announcements here.This must mean that they are safe. But safety eventually depends on where and how it is applied.

In many ways, such technologies would actually speed up certain processes. But, it is important to decide which are the processes for which the speed is required and for which it is not. For example, it dosen't mater much in a medical emergency if the insurance company blocks patient data sharing with a particular hospital owing to corporate tie-up issues or for a particular patient who forgot to pay his/her dues.

Implantable chips would become better and we would also have the choice now to choose between implants and epidermal electronic systems ( see my previous post on EES : Branding yourself electronically with Electronic Epidermal Systems ). Also, implantable chips are in the prototype stages which have bundled feautures of identification with real time biosensor capabilities ( check out Positive ID Corporations GlucoChip for monitoring blood glucose levels ). Some underlying issues remain such as one raised in another blog (PositiveID Implantable GlucoChip RFID Technology Continues-Submitted to FDA for 501K Approval).

But just as my hopes rise up, my dystopian fears also crop up. Fears of a "Repo men" scenario resurge when I hear that Medical devices such as pacemakers and cosmetic devices such as breast implants are being enabled with RFID tags to enable smoother processing of patient data. Insurance companies are going to have a field day with scanning all their defaulters very quickly. Naturally, legislations would be in place to protect the interests of individuals against threats to their inherent privacy and dignity.For example, states in USA have passed bills protecting against forced implantation of microchips (California Bans Forced RFID Tagging of Humans).

I do not wish to state that we avoid allowing technology getting under our skin. However, we should only become aware of the amount of control we have over the electronics that we allow to merge with our biological bodies. So far, the biological body with which we are born is the last frontier for any sense of self-identity. Violation of the human dignity with intrusive proprietory technology may only be allowed under dire or highly essential circumstances. I just hope it does not become as casual as sharing personal information on an online social network only to be gobbled up by info-seeking companies. It really has started getting scary now that technology is getting under our skin !!!

V.R. Manoj has a Ph.D in Environmental Biotechnology/Sciences from Anna University, Chennai, India. He has worked in the Renewable energy industry and currently teaches Environmental Sciences and Engineering to Engineering grad students in India. Dr. Manoj was an IEET Affiliate Scholar for 2010-2012.


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