The Microchipping of People and the Uberveillance Trajectory

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-yourselfer implantees”, like Jonathan Oxer of Melbourne and Joe Wooller of Perth, have had implants inserted their bodies using a short procedure and is similar to getting one’s cat or dog chipped.  Oxer modified his house so that his self-inserted implant would act as an automatic key.  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 to the chip triggers the RFID tag embedded in the body and the unique ID is transmitted to a reader, which is programmed to grant access to the person transmitting that ID (but may also do so for 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 paedophiles and sufferers of mental illness. 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 implant 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 moral judgments.

Citation: An adapted version of this piece was published as follows: Katina Michael, September 12, 2011, "The Microchipping of People and the Uberveillance Trajectory", The Social Interface, http://socialinterface.blogspot.com.au/2011/08/microchipping-of-people-and.html