DeepSec 2018 Talk: RFID Chip Inside the Body: Reflecting the Current State of Usage, Triggers, and Ethical Issues – Ulrike Hugl

Chipping humans can be seen as one of the most invasive biometric identification technologies. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) as the key technology in the field of the Internet of Things produces many applications.

For example, human implants are used by scientists in the fields of cyborgism, robotics, biomedical engineering and artificial intelligence, by hobbyists for identification reasons to start their computers, cars, for smart home applications or to pay by credit card, by hospitals for the control of human biological functions of patients, but also by companies to tag their employees for security reasons and workplace surveillance.

All in all, worldwide human implants are mainly used for security, healthcare, and private (individual) reasons. Beside some positive individual or organizational outcomes, implants may compromise privacy and raise manifold ethical questions.

For example, research in the field of information security has shown that RFID implants can be hacked to gain sensitive data stored on such chips. From an ethical point of view, other questions refer to its influence on a person’s identity and body, as well as to how individuals are probably able to resist such a surveillance technology against the background of felt pressure in an organizational or societal environment.

This talk focuses on the current state of the discussion and the applications of human implants, used for various reasons. It discusses triggers mainly from an individual and organizational point of view, and analyzes some already existing and upcoming ethical-, legal- and privacy-related aspects in the field. We will present results from a qualitative study with managers in Austria and close the talk with some theses for future research, applications and related individual and societal outcomes.

We asked Ulrike Hugl a few more questions about her talk.

Please tell us the top 5 facts about your talk.

All throughout history, humans have tried to transcend boundaries, to exceed borders. In the case of RFID chips the borders of the body are being crossed in a very invasive way. Humans implant chips for private reasons, to connect with smart home applications for example, or just for fun, to try how life is as a cyborg. In such cases, people actively want to transform themselves. In other cases, like the use of human implants for security reasons to open doors and gain access to high security areas inside a company, I guess people do not feel the need for ‘body transformation’ before they are chipped.

The first fact: RFID chips are coming up in both, the private and the corporate sector.

Second, because of an extensive use of mobile devices, including different forms of wearables, like smart watches, medical biometric (support) devices and others, nowadays many individuals feel much closer to something like a human-machine interface. I think, from a mental and societal point of view, crossing the body border with a chip implant is much easier now than it was about ten or fifteen years ago.

Third, diverse triggers came up within the last years: The comprehensive worldwide chipping of stock and pets, a tendency towards cashless payment in many countries (as an application of human implants in the private life of chipped people), furthermore human/body enhancement, and also other aspects are starting points to reduce fear of such applications.

Fourth, there are powerful industrial and partially also political players in the field trying to bring up the topic.

Fifth, we have to be aware that such crossing of the body border also comes with ethical-, legal-, and privacy- as well as also security-related aspects, for both, the private and the corporate environment. In the latter case, I was interested in opinions of potentially concerned employees and managers; on that front estimations and results based on a qualitative study in Austria will be presented.

How did you come up with it? Was there something like an initial spark that set your mind on creating this talk?

In the early 2000s, at the MIT and also at a few European universities so-called Mobile Labs came up to figure out potential business applications in the field of the Internet of Things. At that time, I learned a lot about applications regarding personalization, e.g. personalized cost accounting for different business purposes, but also about RFID-, GPS-based tracking, profiling and monitoring, and I often wondered why all the scientific work was only focused on the business background and ignored the potential impact on individuals, users, or consumers. To me, this was the starting point to deal with diverse forms of upcoming new technologies and related issues of privacy and security. Among others, I started to write about chipped humans in about 2004 and I am still interested in the topic.

Why do you think this is an important topic?

First, chip implants can be seen as an ‘insideable’ technology and seems to be one of the most invasive forms of current tech-development. As mentioned above, the body as ‘normal border’ is being crossed. This development – especially if applications in the field of RFID chipping further increase in private use, biomedical implants, health services and the security-related corporate background – holds manifold societal, individual and corporate consequences.

Is there something you want everybody to know – some good advice for our readers maybe?

Currently we live in a world of ‘transgression’. The whole field of cyborgism is more and more coming up. Hereof, human chip implants are just one piece of a bigger human computer interaction- or human machine interface-puzzle. I will try to give you (hopefully) interesting insights into the development of human implants, current applications, managers’ (non-)acceptance as well as upcoming tech- and other developments in the field.

A prediction for the future – what do you think will be the next innovations or future downfalls when it comes to your field of expertise / the topic of your talk in particular?

There exist well-known medical in-body-technologies like heart pacemakers and cochlear and brain implants. At the same time, body hackers try to figure out novel capabilities for themselves, often during a special social chipping event, so-called implant parties. All in all, trends of human enhancement, in my opinion, should focus on a debate about the future of society. What will be (at) the end of body and human (performance) enhancement? Currently, in Germany we have a political and ethical discussion about (predictive) diagnostic analysis during pregnancy and the question of inviolability of an individual’s dignity in cases of trisomy 21. Or: What would we do and feel if politicians would decide to implement human chipping in the working environment or for the overall population? In a broader sense, debates about the future of society should consider the potential of cyborgism as well as robotics with the potential of replacing humans. According to Stephen Fox, in the future we will have to focus on questions like mass paradigms, technology domestication, and cultural capital; and to balance the huge implications: E.g. opportunity versus exploitation? Utopia versus dystopia? Emancipation versus extermination? Perhaps it will be like squaring the circle.

Professor Ulrike Hugl is a senior scientist and lecturer at the University of Innsbruck (School of Management), Department of Accounting, Auditing and Taxation. She is member of various scientific committees of international conferences and reviewer of several journals. Her research mainly focuses on new technologies with impact on information security and data protection of organizations, as well as on occupational/corporate crime (especially insider threat) and industrial espionage issues.

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