Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about Human Microchips

By Jessica 'Zhanna' Malekos Smith, J.D.

“Where is my key?” Frantically rummaging through one’s briefcase for that elusive key, the thought of $150 suddenly comes to mind. 
That is the average cost of the procedure to have a microchip, about the size of a grain of rice, surgically inserted between one’s thumb and index finger.
Imagine — with the swipe of one’s microchipped hand against a digital reader device, unlocking that door  — whether it leads to one’s office, garage, or home.  Today, more than 50,000 people worldwide have elected to receive microchip implants.  This technology is especially popular in Sweden, where more than 4,000 Swedes are replacing keycards for chip implants to use for gym access, e-tickets on railway travel, and even store emergency contact information and social media profiles.  In the United States, while chip implants are gradually being embraced, some lawmakers are taking preemptive action to prohibit forced microchipping. The first company to begin offering employees free microchip implants was a Wisconsin vending machine software company in 2017. This alarmed some lawmakers, however, who felt it was “a rabbit hole I don’t think we should go down” and proposed banning human microchip implants.
Another rabbit hole is the Bill Gates ‘microchip conspiracy theory
Politifact debunked the unfounded claim that the coronavirus pandemic is part of a plan by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to establish a vaccination program to implant trackable microchips in people.  Facebook also flagged this spurious claim after the post was shared by more than 44,000 users. Additionally, the BBC  debunked this after the leader of the Russian Communist party accused "globalists" of supporting "a covert mass chip implantation which they may in time resort to under the pretext of a mandatory vaccination against coronavirus".
Conspiracy theories aside, how do the microchip implants work?
According to the Seattle based biohacking company, Dangerous Things, the chip implants communicate using radio-frequency identification (RFID) and are “passive transponders.” Passive means that it “allows a small computer chip with no battery or power source to be powered by and communicate with compatible readers using the magnetic field the reader generates.” Due to the chip’s petite size (e.g. 2mm x 12mm) the digital reader must be positioned a few inches away from one’s microchipped hand in order to communicate.
But not all implants are alike.  Apart from RFID, Sweden’s top provider of chip implants, Biohax International, produces Near Field Communication (NFC) chips, which are used in mobile payments and contactless credit cardsNFC chips use electromagnetic radio fields to wirelessly communicate to digital readers within close proximity, much like smartphones. Further, these chips are “passive”, meaning that they store information that other devices can read, but the chip itself does not read information. According to Biohax, a benefit to NFC chips is their international use: “With the power of existing infrastructure and the wide variety of services and products already supporting the NFC standard globally, one huge benefit of ours is that we overlap virtually any private or public sector already using NFC or mobile tech.”
Why are some U.S. lawmakers calling for a preemptive ban?
While microchips offer alluring benefits of convenience and speed, they also carry privacy and security concerns.
A general security concern with NFC technology is that it could allow third parties to eavesdrop on device communication, corrupt data, or wage interception attacks, warns NFC.org.  Interception attacks are when someone intercepts the data transmitted between two NFC devices and then alters the data as it’s being relayed.  Like any device, these personal chips have security vulnerabilities and could potentially be hacked, even if it’s embedded underneath the skin.
These chip implants can also reveal a lot of personal information, cautions Stockholm's Karolinska Institute microbiologist Ben Libberton, such as “data about your health … data about your whereabouts, how often you’re working, how long you’re working, if you’re taking toilet breaks and things like that.”
Religious objections are also being raised against hand-scanners and other biometric technology in the workplace. For instance, in 2013 a coal miner in West Virginia filed a Title VII religious discrimination case against his employer, Consol Energy, Inc., for refusing to accommodate his religious objection to using a biometric hand-scanner to clock in and out at work. He feared that using Consol’s hand-scanner would be tantamount to the ‘Mark of the Beast’ and “could lead to his identification with the Antichrist.” The district court ruled in favor of the employee because the company “failed to make available to a sincere religious objector the same reasonable accommodation it offered other employees.”
Banning mandatory implants
Currently, 11 states in the U.S. have passed statutes banning mandatory human microchips. 
For example, California Civil Code section 52.7 makes it unlawful for anyone — not just employers — to “require, coerce, or compel any other individual to undergo the subcutaneous implanting of an identification device”, and Wisconsin Statute section 146.25 recites that “[n]o person may require an individual to undergo the implanting of a microchip.” Among the other states that have enacted similar legislation are: Maryland (Md. Code Ann. § 20-1902), New Hampshire, North Dakota (N.D. Cent. Code § 12.1-15-06), Oklahoma (Okla. Stat. tit. 63, § 1-1430), and Utah
A few states, however, have enacted legislation that only forbids employers from requiring employees to be microchipped.  Missouri (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 285.035), Arkansas (Ark. Act 516), Indiana (HB 1143), and Montana (S.B. 286) also protect independent contractors and prohibit any state agency, or local government, from requiring people to be microchipped.
Nevada’s legislation is among the most restrictive of this technology  — while not a total ban as previously proposed in 2017  —  NV AB226 “prohibits an officer or employee of this State or any political subdivision thereof or any other person from: (1) requiring another person to undergo the implantation of a microchip or other permanent identification marker of any kind or nature; (2) establishing a program that authorizes a person to voluntarily elect to undergo the implantation of such a microchip or permanent identification marker; or (3) participating in a program established by another person, if the program authorizes a person to voluntarily elect to undergo the implantation of such a microchip or permanent identification marker.”
The states with pending legislation on this issue are Rhode Island, Iowa, Tennessee, and New Jersey.
Designing a more secure future
In a seminal 1890 law review article by Warren and Brandeis, they declared the “design of the law must be to protect those persons with whose affairs the community has no legitimate concern, from being dragged into an undesirable and undesired publicity and to protect all persons, whatsoever; their position or station, from having matters which they may properly prefer to keep private, made public against their will.” While this still holds true, as microchip implants gain popularity the onus can’t be on the law alone to “protect all persons.” Rather, this solemn responsibility also rests with technologists to design products that can protect all users from having their personal, financial, and health data made public against their will, and for users to be well-informed of their personal data rights.  It is that trinity of shared responsibility, versus a total ban on this technology, that can sustain designing a more secure future for all to enjoy.

Jessica 'Zhanna' Malekos Smith, J.D., is a Senior Associate (non-resident) with the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Technology Policy Blog is produced by the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project, and Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program