Near field communication (NFC) technology has made headlines again as the Swedish company Epicenter is seeing more employees opt for implanted microchips. Epicenter, a start-up hub, is known for innovation and embracing technology. The introduction of the chip provides more convenience to each worker that opts for implantation. Chipped employees no longer have to bring keys, badges, or even a wallet into the building. At the time of this writing, 7.5% of the Epicenter workforce has gotten the microchip implant.
Safety and privacy concerns surround microchip implantation. Many people don’t have a full understanding of what the microchips can and can’t do. Experts on NFC compare it to RFID asset tracking technology. NFC was actually developed from the RFID framework. While there are many similarities, the two technologies have differences.
Currently, RFID can use passive and active communication, while microchip implants for humans rely on passive communication. The difference between types is the presence of a power supply. A passive device does not have a self-contained power supply, a reader provides the power to capture the information. These devices can’t receive information. Passive devices are often compared to a banner, the viewer can read the message – but the banner can’t do anything other than communicate the written words. The ability to operate without an included power source allows these devices to be cheaper and smaller. The NFC technology used in microchips is passive, workers with the implants must be within 15 feet of the reader. Their implants are unable to receive information.
An active device can send and receive information, it is also powered by an external battery or power source. Active tags can be read from over 100 feet, far greater than that of passive chips or tags. This technology is often used by consumers that transfer data between mobile devices. Another common application is using active RFID asset tracking to locate aerospace assets in a large warehouse or hangar.
As NFC technology was derived from RFID asset tracking, many worry if microchips will allow a person’s location to be tracked in the same manner. Location tracking using RFID or NFC technology functions much the same way regarding range. Passive chips or tags must be within 15 – 20 feet, if not closer, to a reader. The readers can be mobile or stationary. In theory, a person that was implanted with a passive microchip could be tracked when they passed within range of a reader. Costs, and potential ethical dilemmas, would steer many companies away from this line of thought. In the US, four states have enacted laws that prevent employers from making microchips mandatory. Other legislation seeks to prohibit the chipping of children, require an individual to be over the age of 18 to get chip, and discrimination on the basis of chip implantation.
A group of studies have found that microchips may be cancerous in small laboratory animals. Similar studies showed reduced effects in larger animals, such as dogs. Thorough testing has not been conducted on humans. RFID tags used for asset tracking have not been the cause of any OSHA recorded accidents or other health hazards.
While the NFC used in microchips may have been created from RFID asset tracking technology, the applications are different. Both technologies can communicate passive data, but the difference is in the way that the data is used. Workers that opt for the microchips use a passive implant, only allowing for close proximity readings. The core focus of the implants is for secure access and payment. RFID is used predominately for tracking the location of assets, or even assigning the asset to a work order or team member. Organizations in mining and construction are investigating the use of RFID for determining employee headcounts during severe weather and accidents, or avoiding workers when operating company vehicles.