National

Japan weighs benefits, as well as health and security risks, of embedded microchips

Kyodo

The signs of a future in which humans merge with machines are appearing in Japan as people start to implant microchips in their bodies. But set against considerations of convenience are questions over potential medical law violations, health concerns and security risks.

Although integrated circuit chips are being welcomed by some people, who see them being used for everything from electronic payments to unlocking smartphones, the long-term effects of embedding them in the human body are not yet well understood.

At an information technology company in central Osaka called Otafuku Lab Inc., President Takashi Hamamichi, 39, waves his hand across a sensor on a door. A light flashes green and it clicks open.

“It is really convenient since I don’t need my keys,” said Hamamichi with a smile, explaining that he had the short-range wireless communication device implanted under his skin between his thumb and forefinger in February.

The cylindrical chip, which is about the size of a long grain of rice, is sold by an overseas company, he said.

People at some companies in the United States have started implanting microchips in their hands and are using them to shop or use copy machines. In Sweden, they are being used in place of train tickets in some cases or to enter secure buildings.

The radio-frequency identification chip is also convenient for smartphones since no password is required, Hamamichi said.

But services for the chip, known as “Type-A,” are limited in Japan, where the FeliCa contactless RFID smart card system is primarily used at train ticket gates and other locations.

To enhance the convenience of the Type-A chip, Otafuku Lab is trying to develop technology that can be used for internal procedures at companies.

Hamamichi said the current chips available lack memory capacity, but improvements in the technology will provide more convenience in the future. At the same time, issues with protecting personal information stored on chips are likely to arise, he said.

“We have to think about what kind of services are suited for Japan,” he said.

A 43-year-old man who has a microchip implant and is familiar with the technology in Japan said more than 30 people in the country have inserted chips and have done so “at their own risk.”

Many of them are in their 20s and 30s and involved in the IT business — one is a smartphone app developer — he noted.

Implanting a chip requires the use of a hypodermic needle to insert the device into the body, but since needles are considered medical instruments under Japanese medical law, individuals other than doctors are banned from using them.

Similar to a tattoo artist who might perform “scratch” procedures on someone without the proper training or license, there is a danger of unlicensed people carrying out medical procedures to inject chips in violation of Japanese medical law.

Although it is said there is little effect from microchips on the body, no one is certain of the potential health risks over time. The technology may also eventually become outdated.

The man warned there is potential for massive bleeding or the occurrence of infections if nonprofessionals try injecting chips by themselves.

“Because it is a highly convenient technology that could potentially spread, we should create a license system for people contracted to perform injections and create a safe environment for using the technology,” he said.