Radio frequency waves have been used to drive technology innovations and communication breakthroughs since, well, the radio. Radio waves are how we access Wi-Fi, use remote controls, and use cell phones. One of the latest innovations using radio waves – radio frequency identification (RFID) biochips – is a game changer for the way medical professionals store, access, and evaluate rapidly changing patient health data, but it comes with some significant concerns.
RFID microchips are embedded into highly sensitive personal items, like credit cards and passports, to improve security. They use a wireless system comprising two components: tags and readers. The reader is a device that has one or more antennas that emit radio waves and receive signals back from the RFID tag. Tags, which use radio waves to communicate their identity and other information to nearby readers, can be passive or active and store and transmit specific data.
RFID biochips, which have been in near constant use since the early 2000s, are microchips designed to be implanted under the skin. In fact, it’s pretty likely your family pet is microchipped in case they get lost and end up at the pound.
So far, while RFID technology is being incorporated into daily use, biochips for people haven’t fully taken off.
What does a human biochip do?
Biochips have been approved by the FDA for human use since 2004, but didn’t see a significant roll-out for human use until 2017 when Sweden began voluntary microchipping interested citizens. As of 2020, over 6,000 Swedish residents have bio-chips. They are using the technology to simplify everything from accessing secure office buildings to storing their monthly train passes. In Wisconsin, a small firm allows their employees to voluntarily choose biochips to replace door fobs, bathroom keys, gym access tags, and a security login for their work computers, as well as give them the ability to pay at the break room vending machine.
Investors see potential for the medical industry.
Companies that make and market biochips to the medical industry are focused on streamlining health data. For example, doctors could scan biochips to access patients’ medical records almost instantly, speeding up access to critical care. They could also rely on biochips to report real-time changes to physical well-being. “By putting sensors under the skin,” says Hannes Sjöblad, founder of the company DSruptive, which develops implants and a platform to speed up innovation on the hardware side, “it would be possible to measure blood sugar levels, heart rate, temperature and blood pressure.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, promoters point to biochips as a real solution to frontline health and safety concerns. Real-life use cases include:
- Helping to evaluate temperatures in real time, catching spikes in fever before they become life-threatening and keeping workplaces safe.
- Monitoring heart rate and breathing to help quickly triage the most vulnerable through emergency system care.
- Medical professionals being able to scan a chip to gather critical data needed to evaluate a patient’s health, keeping them at a safe distance and helping reduce their exposure to unknown contagions.
While the possibilities for innovation in the health sector are endless, individuals and organizations have raised many concerns regarding privacy and tracking, the potential for tech owners to abuse their power, excessive governmental or private industry oversight, and potential discrimination using personal health information.
Despite the unprecedented climate created by the COVID-19 pandemic, these concerns will likely delay microchipping clinics from popping up in your neighborhood anytime soon. But there are those pushing for further study and legislation to address personal privacy and data security concerns, and it’s hard to say where it will go from there.
“More companies are using technology to monitor employees, sparking privacy concerns,” ABC News; “The Electromagnetic Spectrum,” NASA; “What are radio waves?” NASA; “Radio Frequency Identification (RFID),” FDA; “Medical microchip for people may cause cancer,” NBC News; “Are embedded microchips dangerous? Ask the Swedes — and pets,” USA Today; “FDA Approves Computer Chip for Humans,” NBC News; “Why You’re Probably Getting a Microchip Implant Someday,” The Atlantic; “The Things You May Not Know about the Microchip in Your Passport,” Swift Passport and Visa Services; “Radio Frequency Identification (RFID): What is it?” Department of Homeland Security; “Is ‘Biochipping’ A Good Idea?” Fortune; “There Are Plenty Of RFID-Blocking Products, But Do You Need Them?” NPR; “‘Immunity passports’ in the context of COVID-19,” World Health Organization; “Australia has COVIDSafe. Here is how other countries are using contact tracing apps in the fight against coronavirus,” ABC News.
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