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Microchipping humans wields great promise, but does it pose greater risk?

An intense debate is underway over the benefits and drawbacks of using microchips, typically relied upon to identify ranch animals and pets, on humans. Advantages include fast communication of critical patient data to medical teams, seamless payment and automatically opened doors. But skeptics warn of dire implications for privacy and ethics. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    An intense debate is under way over the benefits and drawbacks of human microchips. They're already used to identify ranch animals and pets, but the practice of implanting chips in people is also on the rise.

    Those who embrace the idea say they see it as a way to take back control of their personal data. But others are worried about how that data could be used.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Southern England.

    It's part of our breakthrough series on the Leading Edge of science, technology and medicine..

  • Alex Lewis:

    I don't want to lead a normal life. I want to lead an exceptional life. And I want to try things and do things that perhaps others in my situation have never done.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Meet Alex Lewis, interior designer, businessman, adventurer, and motivational speaker.

  • Alex Lewis:

    We were just an ordinary family, me, Lucy, and our son Sam. Then, just over two years ago, I caught a common cold. It was to change the course of my life overnight.

    I'm in this condition thanks to an incredibly rare case of Strep A. And it led to toxic shock syndrome, septicemia, and subsequently sepsis. I lost all four limbs within about six or seven months.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Alex is a pathfinder for those with serious medical conditions. In the remains of each arm, a microchip has been implanted. One is to hold medical information, the other for a chore the able-bodied take for granted.

  • Alex Lewis:

    For me, as a prosthetic user, one of the most fiddly things is keys. Keys are a nightmare for us.

    And the microchip, when looking in to it, we realized quite quickly that it could save a lot of time. So, for me, it was going to be beneficial for that. I could lose 15 minutes trying to get in my front door. I could lose 10 minutes trying to get out of my back door. And now all that's been saved.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    These microchips use a system known as near field communication. It's exactly the same sort of technology used in contactless debit and credit cards.

    Like the bank cards, the chip's information can be scanned. But it cannot transmit. Once banking security has been configured, developers believe consumers will soon be free to spend with the implant.

    A British railway ticket. But it's much different in Sweden, a country supposedly leading the microchip revolution. On Sweden's high-speed rail lines, for the past 18 months, implanted passengers have put their travel payment on the chip.

  • Carla Grelsson:

    I think its really good with a chip ticket. I love all companies that use the chip technology.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But the rail company is stopping the experiment. The number of implanted passengers is relatively small, and it wants to pursue other forms of ticketing.

    This is not a setback, insists Sweden's microchip pioneer Jowan Osterlund, a former body piercer, seen here giving a TED Talk.

  • Jowan Osterlund:

    We can do easier travel. We can do faster and safer payments. We can do something as mundane as opening a door. I mean, the opportunities are endless.

  • Gus Hosein:

    Unfortunately, these innovators often don't think about the political ramifications.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Gus Hosein is the executive director of Privacy International, a nonprofit that challenges overreaching state and corporate surveillance.

  • Gus Hosein:

    In today's world particularly, we have to imagine how governments and how ambitious politicians and even how ambitious corporate executives will try to imagine putting this type of technology into you so that they can exploit your data and ultimately exploit you.

  • Dr. Geoff Watson:

    I'm going to ask you to keep your hand nice and relaxed like it is.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    I.T. student Kieran Anderson is being chipped by Dr. Geoff Watson, a consultant anesthetist who is driving research into the medical benefits.

  • Dr. Geoff Watson:

    The microchip is actually inside here. And there's a sort of an introducer piece of plastic that will push it out once it's in.

  • Kieran Anderson:

    OK.

  • Dr. Geoff Watson:

    So this is the implant coming now. You will feel a bit of pressure and a bit of a clunk. So, you are now a cyborg. Welcome.

  • Kieran Anderson:

    Not too painful. It's fine.

  • Dr. Geoff Watson:

    Kieran has a near field communication microchip in his hand. And that can be used to store data, store information, his name, address, contact details, anything he chooses to put on there, blood type, allergies, drugs, basic medical information.

  • Kieran Anderson:

    The idea of everything being able to communicate together excites me quite a lot, so automatic payments and that sort of thing without you having to actually do anything.

  • Dr. Geoff Watson:

    The idea of this chip is that it's not transmitting anything. It has to be actively read. You choose who can read it and when they can read it. I think that that gives a lot more control over our personal information over our information than your mobile phone is giving away.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But Privacy International's Gus Hosein is yet to be convinced.

  • Gus Hosein:

    Already governments are keen to capture your fingerprints. They are keen to capture your iris scans, and they want to be able to do this at a distance, so they can identify you as you walk through areas. They're doing facial recognition.

    These are all fallible technologies. They're hard to do well. But the idea that they could actually just embed you, it is the modern form of tattooing bar codes on people. And we have seen governments do that in the past. This is just the next generation.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Steven Northam, the co-owner of the British implant company, believes those fears are exaggerated.

  • Steve Northam:

    So I have been compared to Hitler before for microchipping people. It's been commented. But, I mean, I can't really see the connection, personally.

    I can understand people have very strong views. There's big ethical arguments around microchipping people. But, currently, it's by choice. No one is enforcing you have to be microchipped. If that happens, a completely different ball game and lots more arguments to be had around it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Eddie Curry favors using chips to replace keys at his weekly newspaper on England's southern coast. He feels the publication is at risk in the changing global media market, and wants to attract new income by turning the company into a hub for digital innovators.

  • Eddie Curry:

    I'm well aware that this technology could be used for all sorts of sinister things. But, for us here, we're an ethical firm. We don't envisage doing anything more than that, and we wouldn't force anyone to have one, because we understand they may be reticent about it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But the majority of staff have rejected the offer to be chipped.

  • Roz Waters:

    The benefits, you know, of just being able to open a door wouldn't really be sufficient for me to have something implanted in my body.

  • James Gunner:

    I haven't got any concerns, because, obviously, this is quite a small company, and I don't think it will be abused here.

  • Ben Craig:

    I suppose somebody has got to be the trailblazer, so that other people can see how it works. I don't want that to be me.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Geoff Watson sees huge potential, especially in the medical field for those with illnesses such as diabetes.

  • Dr. Geoff Watson:

    Take a diabetic who collapses in the street, and people don't know what to do. By the time the ambulance has arrived and works things out, it make take hours before they are properly treated, whereas a simple instruction read from the phone, "My name is Joe Bloggs, please contact this number for my next of kin, I'm diabetic, please give me some sugar and it should make me feel better," those kind of things could make life-changing advances for individuals.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The chips can be read by scanners installed in the latest mobile phones. So how easy is it would it be for a hacker to steal the information from the implants used by Alex and others?

  • Dr. Geoff Watson:

    Any technology is open to abuse, and anybody would be able to hack it.

    In order to hack these devices, it has to be held still for a period of time. At the moment, I think it takes about three to four hours to hack it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Alex's wife, Lucy, is not troubled by security concerns and is looking forward to the second generation of chips.

  • Lucy Lewis:

    Alex travels overseas an awful lot. And before he goes overseas, I have to do this whole packaging of medication, what medication he's on, and passports. I'm always worried about who has his passport.

    And so all of those things, it will eventually come into its own that he will be able to use all of that information, without me worrying about where it is or who it's with.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At present, Alex Lewis relies on a driver. But he hopes the next breed of implants will put him behind the wheel.

  • Alex Lewis:

    To be able to get into the car, to start it without any kind of key, with the microchip start the car, would be fantastic. But it just opens up a bit more freedom for me.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Privacy International's Gus Hosein insists he is not a Luddite, a person opposed to new technology.

  • Gus Hosein:

    Every technology that comes along has to be treated with complete suspicion, until we're able to sort out the ethical barriers around our actions.

  • Alex Lewis:

    I live an incredible life, a life I'm incredibly happy to be living.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As this technology improves, the debate will intensify as to whether implants generate or diminish freedom, as well as the many shades of gray in between.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Southern England.

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