A new trend has been developing slowly but surely over the last few years: contactless payment by means of a microchip implanted under the skin. The BBC takes a closer look at this technology and its implications, particularly in terms of data control and storage.
A subcutaneous chip connected to your bank account
It was in 1998 that a microchip was first implanted under the skin of an individual, but it was not until the last decade that this technology was commercialized by companies such as Walletmore.
For a fee of 200 euros, this Anglo-Polish startup offers its customers a microchip sent by post, which must then be fitted by a doctor willing to perform this unusual procedure. The lifetime of the microchips sold by Walletmore is 5 years, which implies several minor surgical interventions over the course of a lifetime.
Once the chip is in place, customers can link it to their bank account and use it as a contactless means of payment anywhere in the world.
Interviewed by the BBC, Wojtek Paprota, founder and CEO of Walletmore, states that"the implant can be used wherever contactless payments are accepted".
It also assures us that the marketing of these chips does not infringe any existing laws, and that 500 customers have already been won over by the concept.
The chip operates using NFC (Near Field Communication) technology, which enables data to be exchanged between a reader and a compatible mobile terminal, or between several terminals. This is the same technology used for contactless payment with a smartphone.
The thorny question of data security for microchips under the skin
While the prospect of having a payment chip implanted is, for many, hardly a cause for celebration, a survey carried out in 2021 in the UK and various European Union countries revealed that, out of 4,000 people questioned, 51% were considering trying the experiment. Despite this, the invasive nature of such a chip and security issues remained, according to the survey, major concerns for those polled.
Among the arguments put forward by supporters of these payment chips is that pets themselves are equipped with microchips enabling them to be identified, without risk to their health and without drift. Operating with RFID technology, they are not used to geolocate pets, but to communicate information about the animal's identity when scanned with a compatible reader.
However, as the BBC explains, there are legitimate doubts: there's no guarantee that microchips won't be used in the future to store a great deal of confidential data, likely to fall into the hands of people with little regard for ethics and privacy.
According to Nada Kakabadse, Professor of Politics, Governance and Ethics at Reading University's Henley Business School in the UK, these subcutaneous microchips could lead to more "control, manipulation and oppression", she tells the BBC, and lead to "the powerlessness of many for the benefit of a few".
Steven Northam, Senior Lecturer in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Winchester, takes a different view. According to him, there's nothing to worry about, as these "small inert objects"are risk-free. In addition to his work as a researcher, Steven Northam himself founded BioTeq, a contactless subcutaneous microchip company. His company markets chips for an entirely different purpose, enabling disabled people to open doors remotely. The applications are numerous, as are the potential pitfalls.