Monday, 12 September 2011

The microchipping of people and the uberveillance trajectory

Associate Professor Katina Michael

First came i-mode and then the iBook. Next the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Is it only a matter of time before we see the iPlant suddenly make its debut onto the global market? This is a real possibility for your future: a subdermal microchip implant that will potentially give you ubiquitous connexity: always on, always with you, 24x7x365.

The term “uberveillance”, coined by MG Michael in 2005, is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as an omnipresent electronic surveillance facilitated by technology that makes it possible to embed surveillance devices in the human body. In that same year, the Parliament of Australia’s Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs published: "The Real Big Brother: Inquiry into the Privacy Act 1988”. Chapter three on “emerging technologies” addresses the role that microchip implants in humans could play in the future.

The idea of implanting technology into people is not new. The first implantable cardiac pacemaker was created in 1958. Since then, we have seen the introduction of the cochlear implant to help the deaf to hear and the brain pacemaker to aid those suffering with epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, major depression and other diseases.

However, human implant technology is getting cheaper, easier to access and looks increasingly like it is going to be part of your everyday future life.

So-called “do-it-yourself implantees”, like Jonathan Oxer of Melbourne and Joe Wooller of Perth, have had implants inserted into their bodies using a short procedure and is similar to getting one’s cat or dog chipped.  Oxer modified his house so that his implant could be used to personalise settings in his home.  Wooller can open the doors to his house, car and motorbike with a swipe of his hand.

The microchip implant, most commonly a passive radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag, carries a unique pin that identifies the chip. How does this let you open a door? An antenna in close proximity triggers the RFID tag embedded in the body and an ID is transmitted to a reader, which grants access to the implantee (but may also grant access to a potential hacker).

Opening doors using a unique RFID tag is elementary when compared to the role that microchip implants play in brain pacemakers. But the potential for implanting citizens with microchip technology has been considered to be beneficial on several fronts. Proponents of microchipping people often state that implants would signal the end of credit card fraud, losing your keys, kidnapping, even a partial solution to reducing carbon emissions. The most popular argument is often connected to national security. This is despite the reality that RFID is the most insecure ID technology in the market. The loss of privacy in any of these or other contexts is an issue which needs to continually be addressed.

Microchips are set to bring new life to a whole gambit of control applications. It was only a few months ago that wearable GPS monitoring devices were embraced by the Queensland State Government for use by sufferers of mental illness and, later, sex offenders. Australian cricketers have been using body wearable technologies to record their match fitness levels and productivity since 2006. We are now talking about the mainstream commercialisation of such technology solutions, along with a movement from wearable to implantable technology. Microchips will provide us with the ability to locate, track and monitor people and provide data such as longitude and latitude coordinates of an individual down to a metre, as well as their speed, distance, time stamps, altitude, direction, temperature, heart rate, pulse rate and other physiological measures.

RFID implants for humans are now clearly on the political agenda. Recently, South Australia’s Police Commissioner Mal Hyde stated that there were quite a few different groups of people he’d like to see microchipped. And Sunshine Coast MP Peter Wellington was widely cited as saying that he would like to see child sex offenders microchipped.

The question is how long it will take for integrated solutions based on microchip implants to surface in everyday applications and how the law will deal with the continued rise of new and disruptive technologies which have the capacity to change just about everything. The problem is that, in many instances, legislation will offer few permanent or secure solutions, leaving the question open to the broad spectrum of ethics and debates involving difficult moral judgments.

Photo by ONT Design, made available by a Creative Common licence via Flickr.


  1. The potential value that mainstream microchipping technology would hold for the economically interested is enough to make me shudder...

  2. To some respect there's a convenience to the proposition... especially on a voluntary level. I can't see the government having wide-spread power to microchip citizens... That would have to be surreptitiously, or atleast over a long period of time.

  3. If I can RFID-tag a pallet of baked beans tins, a packet of razor blades or a pet, why not a person? From a technical view it is just the same. So where in the technology development cycle is the responsibility for distinguishing between a person and tins of baked beans? If concerns are raised by the engineer early in development, they would be considered outlandish. If left to after-the-fact regulation then human dignity is in the hands of regulators. Or maybe it comes back to engineers to design simple RFID jamming devices...

  4. A big question on "voluntary" is parents microchipping children.

  5. Dear Katina
    Thank you for keeping this on the Agenda.This is something that needs widespread public debate and I believe a suitable regulatory regime. A number of States in the USA have already introduced "Bodily Integrity Act Legislation" in anticipation of privacy concerns of their communities. In addition the health risks related to human microchipping have been foreshadowed by Dr Katherine Albrecht (See My concerns as a Citizen about Human Microchip Implants is -"Lack of Information". ISTAS 2010 International Symposium 7-9 June University of Wollongong covers many related issues. SSIT & Social Interface keep up the good work

  6. Hi folks,

    Just pointing to a few resources which may be of interest here -

    It's early days but worth a read on my perspective -

    What I find will build here -

    I look forward to informing things from an education perspective.

  7. Good people don't deserve to be microchipped we are with in our rights to have a freedom of choice. I don't want to be tracked were ever I'm going so doesn't anybody eals.

  8. everyone do not take the microchip, the microchip is a tourture device, that uses mind control and pain gps if u have read the bible properly u would have known all along, that these chips are used for pure evil just look up microchips: the lies behind. free rights would not be true as it is possible to do realy bad things and if we had these chips me would be like mouse, always tracked never free get ready for aus to be hit with this BE READY