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If you have ever been caught fumbling for your Opal card at the ticket gate, a Sydney man may have found the solution. He had the chip from an Opal card inserted into his hand and is now tapping on using the technology that is implanted underneath his skin.
Bio-hacker Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, his legal name, had the Opal near-field communication (NFC) chip cut down and encased in bio-compatible plastic, measuring 1 millimetre by 6 millimetres. He then had the device implanted just beneath the skin on the side of his left hand.
"It gives me an ability that not everyone else has, so if someone stole my wallet I could still get home," he said. He is able to use the Opal just like other users, including topping the card up on his smartphone. However, his hand needs to be about 1 centimetre from the reader, closer than traditional cards, and he sometimes needs to tap more than once, due to his device's smaller antenna.
"My goal is to have frictionless interaction with technology," he said.
Mr Meow-Meow had his device implanted by a piercing expert, in a procedure lasting approximately one hour. He warned others not to do the same without expertise and research. "Most certainly don't try this at home unless you know what you're doing," he said.
Mr Meow-Meow said there was a risk of bacterial infection whenever anything was implanted beneath the skin, so it was important to consult professionals. "Be aware of the risks involved and make a wise judgement based on that."
He also said his actions were a breach of Opal's terms of service, which prohibit tampering. "It will be really interesting to see what happens when the first transit officer scans my arm," he said.The officer might be more impressed by Mr Meow-Meow's given and surnames, which gained some attention when he stood for parliament.
Last year Bloomberg reported
If your name is Meow Meow, there’s a decent chance you’re an unusual dude. This holds true for Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, a polyamorous, trans-humanist bio-hacker in Sydney. In 2014, Meow Meow opened Australia’s first do-it-yourself bio-hacking lab, in which anyone could pay a membership fee to experiment with DNA and make whatever creatures they could imagine.For people familiar with the VeriChip controversy there is more bite in 'Towards insertables: Devices inside the human body' by Kayla Heffernan, Frank Vetere and Shanton Chang in (2017) 22(3) First Monday or 'The security implications of VeriChip cloning' by John Halamka, Ari Juels, Adam Stubblefield and Jonathan Westhues in (2006) 13(6) Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association 601-607.
Ethical Implications of Implantable Radiofrequency Identification (RFID) Tags in Humans' by Kenneth Foster and Jan Jaeger in (2008) 8(8) The American Journal of Bioethics comments on
two areas of present ethical concern that are distinctive to implanted RFID chips, and in partic- ular the VeriChip.
Disclosure of Risks
A central ethical principle holds that individuals have a right to know about possible adverse effects of a treatment, in this case implantation of a chip. Should VeriChip have disclosed the results of the rodent studies before anti-chip activists raised this issue? A finding of carcinogenic effect of an im- plant in rodents is, at least, suggestive of the possibility of a similar effect in humans. Predictably, the issue has assumed major importance to VeriChip, which saw a large drop in its stock price following media reports of this issue. The company commissioned a consultant to write an article for its website that downplayed risks to humans. While regulatory agencies might not give much weight to indications of foreign-body induced tumorigenesis in rodents, there is clearly a diversity of opinion among experts. “I think the evidence from the animal studies is indeed alarming,” one prominent cancer researcher told one of the present authors “and one should refrain from chipping people unless the mechanisms and long-term effects are known.” (A. Lerchl, Jacobs University Bremen [Bremen, Germany], personal communication [e-mail] to K. R. Foster October 16, 2007). Should the possibility of cancer be added to the rather long list of potential adverse effects provided by the FDA, most of which are seemingly highly unlikely?
Truth in Advertising
VeriChip markets the VeriMed system for identification of patients who might present to emergency rooms incapable of communicating their identity to caregivers. Its promo- tional literature lists a wide variety of conditions, which, the company believes, would justify the cost of implantation of a chip and subscription to its medical database.
However, we know of no studies showing that being chipped gives a better outcome at the emergency room or otherwise improves public health in comparison with sim- pler and noninvasive technologies, such as medical alert bracelets, USB drives with personal health information, identification cards in wallets, fingerprint scanners, biometric identification, for example. An independent assessment of the risks and benefits of the use of implanted RFID tags in humans for medical identification purposes is badly needed, if only as a consumer protection measure to help consumers make informed decisions whether to buy into the system. For most individuals, we suspect, chipping would be a poor investment with slight prospects of resulting in a better outcome in a health crisis given other options available to the patient.
So far, only preliminary studies are underway which address this issue. A pilot project using this system was announced in June 2006 by VeriChip Corporation with Hackensack University Medical Center (Hackensack, NJ), a large provider of medical services in the state, and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Newark, NJ). A larger test, with 200 Alzheimer’s patients, was announced in February 2007 by VeriChip Corporation and Alzheimer’s Community Care, Inc (West Palm Beach, FL).
From the brief descriptions of these studies, it not clear whether they are designed to assess benefits of the technology to individuals or to the healthcare providers. To make an informed choice, the consumer needs to know the likelihood that being chipped will result in a better outcome in a health emergency than with other identification technologies. A well-designed study to examine that endpoint would have to be far larger than either of the two studies mentioned previously. The pilot studies may be better suited to demonstrate the benefits to the healthcare system in accessing patient insurance and health records data, which is a different matter entirely. (The second of these studies raises issues of obtaining consent from Alzheimer’s patients, a thorny bioethical issue in itself).
Given the uncertainties about the safety of implanted RFID chips, and uncertainties in the benefits that they may bring, caution is warranted. We agree with the caution reflected in a recent report of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association on the technology (Sade 2007):
Radio frequency identification (RFID) devices may help to identify patients, thereby improving the safety and efficiency of patient care, and may be used to enable secure access to patient clinical information. However, their efficacy and security have not been established. Therefore, physicians implanting such devices should take certain precautions: 1) The informed consent process must include disclosure of medical uncertain- ties associated with these devices. 2) Physicians should strive to protect patients’ privacy by storing confidential information only on RFID devices with informational security similar to that required of medical records. 3) Physicians should support research into the safety, efficacy, and potential non-medical uses of RFID devices in human beings.
If receiving an RFID tag were purely a matter of consumer choice, few serious ethical issues would arise apart from generic concerns about consumer protection. Thus, for ex- ample, a consumer might reasonably choose to be chipped — preferably not in a tattoo parlor — to avoid having to carry a credit card or RFID tag on a key chain.
By far the most important and distinctive ethical issues connected with implanted RFID transponders result from the very real possibility that the chips might be implanted under real or implied coercion, coupled with the deep aversion — or at least unease — with which many individuals view the technology.
Despite extensive, and at times hyperbolic, discussion of the uses of implanted RFID chips in humans to be found on the Internet, few systematic studies have been reported on the acceptability of implanted RFID chips to average people. A small survey in 2003 (Hiltz et al. 2003) found that 18 of 23 people questioned objected to the idea of implantable chips. ”If they are putting something inside of you”, one respondent replied, ”it’s like you’re changing yourself. It’s not right” (Hiltz et al. 2003, 7).
People from different cultures will certainly differ in their acceptability of implanted RFID chips. In some cultures, altering the bodily image may ostracize individuals from their sociocultural networks. In the United States, some fundamentalist Christian groups vehemently object to implanted RFID tags as “marks of the beast.” Both Judaism and Islam prohibit tattoos, and their religious authorities may forbid implanted RFID tags for similar reasons. Other cultural and religious factors in acceptability of the technology have hardly been explored in discussions to date about implanting RFID chips in people for identification.
In view of widespread popular apprehension about the technology, proposals to “chip” individuals would raise extremely serious ethical issues if an element of coercion were involved, either direct or tacit. This can easily come about if RFID tags were to become widely adopted for access control or identification in nonmedical settings.
Indeed, a variety of proposals have been floated in public discussions that would involve coercive implantation of RFID chips, some on face value highly impractical. In March 2006, a columnist for The New Republic Online defended a proposal to implant RFID tags in sex offenders (Cottle 2006), pointing out that such people are already subject to extensive restrictions, and that tracking individuals through implanted RFID chips might be preferable to present practices, for example, residency restrictions based on Megan’s Law legislation that in some jurisdictions force convicted sex offenders to sleep under bridges or in their vehicles. However, the proposal raises obvious objections on practical grounds. Must every entrance to every school be equipped with an RFID reader to detect chipped individuals? Would it not be easy for a chipped individual to conceal the transponder from the reader? A more practical way to implement the plan would be to chip the teachers instead, and use the RFID readers to provide positive identification when they enter a school. We suspect that teachers’ unions would fiercely oppose such a plan.
Far more troubling (and thankfully very far from reality) is the proposal by Silverman (VeriChip’s Chairman of the Board) to “chip” guest workers entering the United States. One might argue that receiving implants would be voluntary for such individuals. But which immigrant, facing poverty at home and the prospects of a job in a new country, would be in a position to argue with demands to have a chip implanted as a condition of entry into the coun- try? Would college professors or bioethicists headed to the United States for a brief sabbatical or training be chipped as well as agricultural workers? If not, who would decide, and on what basis? If being chipped becomes a requirement for work by a noncitizen in the United States, what impact would there be on the global labor market? The prospects of being chipped will surely be a strong deterrent to others from coming here to work and learn.
Forcing immigrants to be chipped is deeply offensive on human rights grounds. It would frame the RFID chip as a branding device similar in theory to the brand of the western cowboy on cattle or to the tattoo of an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. Arguably, it is a violation of Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which guarantees everybody the right to “life, liberty and security of person.” To the extent that forced implantation of a RFID chip in a person’s body is a violation of his/her privacy, it would also violate the privacy provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), to which the US is a party.
While implantable RFID technology is presently being marketed as a measure for patient protection, its chief benefit — convenient and reliable identification of an individual by means of a device that is difficult for the subject to lose — might well be more significant to organizations than to individuals, and the issue is intrinsically more complicated than one of consumer choice alone. In institutions that have adopted the use of implanted RFID tags for identification purposes, pressures will inevitably build on individuals to receive the tags. Suppose, for example, healthcare organizations with electronic records systems gave their patients a choice between maintaining possession of an identification card or receiving a chip? Would elderly, forgetful patients be pressured to receive a chip? What about a soldier in an army that decided to replace dog tags with implanted chips? Are these individuals less vulnerable to coercion to receive a chip than the hapless immigrants considered in Silverman’s proposal? Other technologies, such as fingerprint identification or retinal scans, allow reliable identification of individuals without the need to compromise bodily integrity.
Faced with widespread public concerns about coercive implantable RFID chips, several states have passed legislation regulating their use. In May 2006, for example, Wis- consin passed a bill (Assembly Bill 290) that would prohibit requiring anybody to have a microchip implanted. North Dakota and California have also passed similar bills. Enforcing such laws might be difficult if implanted chips, like drivers’ licenses, remain legally voluntary but become de facto requirements for many kinds of employment, voting, or receipt of health care.
Because of concerns discussed previously, a national dis- cussion is needed about the use of implanted RFID chips among the many groups potentially affected by the technology. Decisions about the use of the technology need to be made by a broader group of stakeholders than the engineers and companies involved in the field. A commitment must be made to restrict the technology to people who freely choose to be implanted, and to shield other individuals from real or implied coercion. As Anderson and Labay remarked (2006), a “decision about where to draw the line of acceptable use must be made soon, before the technology becomes rampant and it becomes too late to prevent misuse.” Or, in more specific terms, we have already implanted RFID tags in our dogs and cats. Is Aunt Millie next?