Microchip implants are basically cylindrical bar codes that send a unique signal through a layer of skin when scanned. You’d be familiar with microchips that are used to arrange merchandise or warehouses - you know, those white plastic barcodes you see on Telkom or MTN boxes when you purchase a new phone, or on basic toiletries from Clicks. A different form has also been used to identify animals and stray pets, and recently, some human testing has taken place.
The technology surfaced in 1998 when British Scientist and Professor of Cybernetics, Kevin Warwick had a silicone chip surgically implanted into his body. Warwick experimented with Radio Frequency Identity Technology (RFIT) and operated locks, lights and lifts, using the chip.
Fast forward to 2014, Amal Graafstra, owner of Dangerous Things, a biohacking company, created a Near Field Communication (NFC) implant. It uses the same technology our smartphones use to transfer data to other phones in close proximity or to make payments on POS machines.
As fantastic a technology as it sounds, human microchipping has had a modest growth trajectory with little market penetration over the last two decades. Scepticism from around the world came after a company in America, The Square Market, chipped employees in view of the public. Unfortunately, the event evoked grim visions of a ruthless boss who dehumanises and oppresses his employees, instead of showing how forward thinking he was..
Professor of Labor and Employment Law at Cornell University, Ifeoma Ajunwa, reckoned the ramifications of microchipping technology must be considered in the context of increased worker surveillance. She argued that microchipping not only gives companies a more detailed data profile of their employees at work, but also intrudes into their personal and private lives.
The sentiments are equally shared in South Africa. From the perception that it is the ‘mark of the beast’ in religious circles to Big Brother-like privacy issues and security concerns, it is still a long road to total acceptance.
The incident with Dr Mark Gasson, Cybernetics scientist at the University of Reading in the UK did not do the tech much justice. He was the first chipped human being to get infected with a computer virus, and it radically spread throughout the university via staff swipe cards as they entered Gasson’s building. The entire university database was also affected - a huge security breach.
On hearing such incidents, questions have been raised about whether an attack on an ICT-enabled human microchip qualifies as vandalism, property destruction, or assault with the intention to inflict grievous bodily harm. In South Africa, any unlawful and deliberate access to data, including electro-magnetic emissions from a computer system containing such data, within or which is relayed to or from a computer system, is criminalised under the Cybercrimes Law, as is any unlawful and purposeful interference with a computer data storage medium or computer system.
Endorsement of human microchipping is seemingly coming from the health sector only. Microchips are useful as a means to preserve one's entire medical history, to the ability to track one's current health condition. You may be thinking this is what Fitbit and its counterparts do, but the microchip is more intrusive. We have pacemakers, loop recorders and cochlear implants as fine examples, but let’s take Elon Musk’s pig Gertrude as a case in point.
To show his ambitious aspirations to develop a workable brain-to-machine interface, Musk implanted a coin-sized computer chip in the pig’s brain. Through tracking and decoding neural activity when Gertrude ate straw or sniffed it, Musk and his company Neuralink are now able to create a device that can be used to navigate the human brain similarly.
This device will apparently help or "cure" certain diseases or impairments by allowing the implanted microchip to compensate for parts of the brain where memories are unavailable or there’s loss of motor function control. Such chips, according to Neuralink, could one day be used to "cure" illnesses including dementia, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries.
So, there you have it South Africa, will you let Big Brother under your skin?