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Potential Application Areas for RFID Implants

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Human ICT Implants: Technical, Legal and Ethical Considerations

Part of the book series: Information Technology and Law Series ((ITLS,volume 23))


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology was originally developed for automatic identification of physical objects. An RFID tag—a small device attached to the object—emits identification data through radio waves in response to a query by an RFID reader which also supplies it power. RFID technology has been increasingly employed as a ‘barcode replacement’ due to the number of advantages that it offers and has been used in production lines and the logistics chain of enterprises and are starting to penetrate other sectors including medical and health care, defence and agriculture. While the first recorded human implantation of an RFID device was in 1998, in 2004, the first RFID implant device was approved for human use by the United States Food and Drug Administration. No data about the owner per se is stored on the device, instead the ID number points to a corresponding entry in a centralised database and can be used to facilitate identification and authentication. The continued commercialisation of RFID implant devices approved for human use, along with a trend for technology enthusiasts and self-experimenters to implant a variety of more advanced RFID technology points the way to future application of these devices. Further explored in this chapter is the use of human implantable RFID in the areas of patient identification in health care, access to services, as a complementary tool for other identification methods, access control for mobile devices, smart environments and other potential longer term applications.

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  1. 1.

    The VeriChip has been designed to operate at a distance of about 10 cm with a handheld reader and 50 cm with a door reader but cannot operate over very large distances. Simulations show that a standard distance can be increased several times (up to 0.5 m for ISO 14443), but with further increase the signal disappears in the environment noise.

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1.1 Case studies: The safe gun and access control for special rooms

Case study one: The safe gun

The ‘Smart Gun’ or ‘Personalized Gun’ is a concept gun that aims to reduce the misuses of guns by children and/or felons by using RFID tags or other proximity devices, fingerprint recognition or magnetic rings. For the moment, only magnetic devices are readily available.Footnote 8 The goal of the smart guns is to prevent the misuses of the weapon in events such as, for example, teenager suicides, unlawful homicides, and also prevent a stolen gun being used against a police officer during an operation.

There are a range of different technologies that have been used to prevent the use of a gun by an ‘unauthorised’ person. One such technique is to implant an RFID tag under the skin of the owner of the gun. The grip of the gun embeds an RFID tag reader which can identify if the actual user of the gun is the authorised person for that particular gun. If not, then the trigger is blocked from releasing and it is not possible for the gun to be fired. VeriChipFootnote 9 is one of the prominent providers of this system.

Before using RFID implants, industry had tried to identify the authorised user of the gun by using a magnetic ring or a bracelet. Unfortunately, rings and bracelets can quite easily be duplicated. This drawback appears to be more important than the advantages of having a ‘removable’ identification system.

VeriChip (now called PositiveIDFootnote 10) has developed a tag approved by the US FDA. This tag has to be scanned with a given frequency and then it answers by transmitting a unique 16 digits number which can then be used to identify the tag and hence the owner of the tag. Considering that the world population is less than 1010 human beings, this 16 digits number allows to have about 10,000 different IDs for every person on earth. The use of this VeriChip technology has raised quite some controversies about its implications on users’ privacy as the tag cannot be deactivated. This means that any time and place, a person bearing such tag can be identified, without consent, and even without being informed of the identification operation.

It is interesting to note that both gun-rights groups (like the National Rifles Association (NRAFootnote 11) for example) and gun-controls groups (like the Violence Policy CenterFootnote 12) have criticised this technology.Footnote 13 While the former fears that the technology would restrict their right to own and use a firearm, the latter fear that the use of smart guns could provide arguments to ‘legalise’ a wider dissemination of guns in jurisdictions such as the United States.

One may also question the reliability of such a technology. Like every control technology, one will expect some ‘false positive’ identification; that is an unexpected authorisation of the use of the gun, as well ‘false negative’ identification, i.e. the gun refuses to be activated by its legal owner.

Deactivating the RFID tag

Normally, when an RFID tag has been implanted, it remains active until its removal or its complete destruction. There are different (and quite creative) ways to deactivate RFID tags. For example, one can mechanically destroy the tag with a knife or a cutter. It is also possible to destroy it electronically, for example by putting the object into a microwave oven for a couple of seconds.

These methods are obviously not applicable in the case of RFID tags used for identification of weapon’s owners. On the one hand, it is difficult to apply microwave heating to an implanted tag; on the other hand, the technology used must allow to temporarily disable an RFID tag, since once destroyed, you cannot reactivate the tag when the officer returns to work.

There are two problems to solve here. The first is to make the falsification of the tag more complicated than the simple transmission of a serial number; the second is to allow a police officer not to be identified as such when not in service. The use of a challenge-response authentication protocol may be employed to solve the first of these problems. An authentication mechanism could prevent duplication of tag and enhance the security of use. The second problem, namely deactivating a RFID, is more complicated. One can imagine that if the reader transmits a certain code to the tag, the tag could enter into a ‘sleeping mode’, only to be reactivated if the right sequence is subsequently transmitted to the tag. This implies that the tag has the necessary computing capabilities to do so and not only transmits some static serial number. Another approach is to give the user more possibilities of controlling the access to the RFID tag using different sensors.Footnote 14 However, while these ideas seem to work well for RFID tags on cards, corresponding applications to implanted RFID tags may need future work.

Dynamic grip recognition

Another technology, developed by the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is based on ‘Dynamic Grip Recognition’.Footnote 15 To achieve this, the grip of the gun includes a set of sensors (such as, for example, mechanical pressure sensors). The measurements made by these sensors are continuously analysed and the trigger is released only if the profile established by the collected data corresponds to the reference data of the authorised user of the gun. But, to do all this processing, the firearm needs to have embedded in it a whole computer with some form of power supply. The user would need to be able to check at any moment the charge of the battery; the gun should also automatically inform the user that the battery level has reached a critically low level. One must ask, however, what would happen if the weapon is not able to protect its authorised user? A high-capacity battery is definitely an advantage, but being exempt from regularly recharging increases the risk of the user forgetting to check the battery’s charge.

Another aspect of this technology that should be considered is the ratio of false negative recognition. The prototype showed a false rejection ratio of 1:100; that is the trigger was not released when the gun was in the hand of its authorised user one in every one hundred, or 1%, of the time. For daily operation this failure rate is too high and would need to be drastically reduced to, say, 1:10,000. For weapons used in the context of law enforcement, it is conceivable to add a mechanism to bypass the biometric recognition. This would allow, for example, a police officer whose weapon is unavailable or faulty to use the weapon of one of his colleagues.

Case study two: Access control for special rooms

In 2004, the Mexican Attorney General’s office implanted 18 of its staff members with the VeriChipFootnote 16 implant in order to control access to a secure data room.Footnote 17 The room contained the country’s database on criminals (the anti-crime information center). Given the importance of such data it is not too difficult to understand why the government and those within the country’s law enforcement agencies were interested in controlling and monitoring access to such a room and the resource contained within. But what about the autonomy and informed consent of those individuals who were implanted with the tag? Did they really have the choice to accept or refuse the device?

One could argue that passive tags only provide a unique identification number and this number may be copied or duplicated. To prevent this kind of abuse, engineers have developed different techniques based on the ‘normal behavior’ of the tag owner. These techniques, already known in intrusion detection systems for computers, check for statistical anomalies in the activity of a user.’Footnote 18 If the behaviour of a user deviates from the expected behaviour then an alert will be generated. This requires fine-tuning of the technology in order to find a compromise between sufficient security and annoyance.

It is possible that having an implanted RFID device could make a person more vulnerable to attack. If a RFID reader identifies some people as ‘chipped’, one can imagine that these personalities, may be ‘of interest’ for criminal organisations. If someone has an RFID tag implanted, it may mean that this person has some specific responsibilities and then that one can obtain some reward (or ransom) if this person is robbed or kidnapped.

About the bibliography of this use case: Searching documentation about this use case may provide some surprises. There are not a lot of articles published on this subject (or at least there is not a lot of documentation indexed by major search engine’s). Most of the available papers have been written by opponents of this system. To convince the reader that the implantation of RFID tags into humans is bad, many papers use religious argumentations. For example, one may often read that an RFID tag is ‘the mark of the beast’.Footnote 19 Although religious views are important, one should be careful when using sources based on theses arguments.

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© 2012 T.M.C. ASSER PRESS, The Hague, The Netherlands, and the author(s)

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Rotter, P., Daskala, B., Compañó, R., Anrig, B., Fuhrer, C. (2012). Potential Application Areas for RFID Implants. In: Gasson, M., Kosta, E., Bowman, D. (eds) Human ICT Implants: Technical, Legal and Ethical Considerations. Information Technology and Law Series, vol 23. T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague, The Netherlands.

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