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Fact check: Americans won’t have microchips implanted by end of 2020

The claim: All Americans will receive a microchip implant by the end of the year

Source: USA Today

A viral article from the website My Healthy Life Guru claims that all Americans will receive a microchip implant by the end of the year.

“Some people are concerned that the federal government will be very influential with this revolutionized RFID Microchip,” the article states. “They could see every move we make.”

The article also asserts, “Your food and money will be also managed with these microchips.”

It attributes the claim in part to NBC News, and links to a two-minute clip on YouTube of a technology report on “Life in the U.S. in Ten Years Time” from May 2007.

“The year is 2017,” intones reporter Tom Costello. “You’re rushed to a hospital unconscious with no ID or medical history. But thanks to a microchip under your skin it’s all there. Science fiction 20 years ago but a biometric reality today.”

In fact, 2017 has come and gone — and this “biometric reality” has yet to occur. Is it imminent in 2020?

The reality of microchips in 2020

Radio-frequency identification technology — or RFID — has been commercially available in various forms since the 1970s. It refers to a wireless system of tags and readers that communicate via radio waves.

Readers have one or more antenna that emits radio waves and receives signals back from tags in the vicinity, per the Food and Drug Administration. The tags may contain information ranging from one serial number to several pages of data.

The technology appears throughout daily life, including in car keys, employee identification, medical billing, highway toll tags and security access cards, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Chris Diorio, the CEO of Impinj, the world’s leading supplier of RAIN RFID, told USA TODAY that some of the fear and confusion about RFID technology stems from the fact that “saying RFID is about as broad as saying radio.”Get the Checking the Facts newsletter in your inbox.

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Various types of microchips with specific capabilities are suited for different purposes. 

RAIN RFID allows about 1,000 item tags to be read per second at a 30-foot range, Diorio explained. That’s why it is primarily associated “with traceability of items through the supply chain,” where it improves retailers’ ability to quickly and accurately inventory their products.

That’s different from the type of near-field communication RFID that’s in an iPhone, for example, and allows monetary transactions with a single tap at a very close range — the technology behind Apple Pay.

And those are both different from the low-frequency RFID that is used for animal identification purposes, including for livestock and pets.

A hand, wearing a medical glove, holds several RFID tags.
Source: USA Today
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Implantation in humans remains uncommon, unpopular

In 1998, Kevin Warwick, a British scientist known as “Captain Cyborg,” became the first human to receive a microchip implant, according to The Atlantic.

Two decades later, though, the technology is still far from common.

In 2018, its most widespread use was in tech-forward Sweden, where an estimated 4,000 citizens use microchips implanted in their hands to store emergency contacts and enable easy access to homes, offices and gyms, according to NPR.

There are also no reported instances of involuntary microchip implantation.

“It’s just never hide-able,” Diorio said. Microchips implanted in pets are the size of a pill capsule, and that’s “about as small as you can get it.”

Even if chips were implanted, Diorio said there’s little reason to fear covert tracking, since the read-range of RFID in humans is limited by the amount of salt water in our bodies. (Radio signals die rapidly in water.)

“The idea of any kind of surreptitious implantation into a human is not really possible, and if you could get something, the ability to read it would be severely constrained,” Diorio said.

For that same reason, he said the microchips in pets are “really hard” to read. They are implanted in the neck, and the reader has to come “right on the neck” to extract any information from the chip, Diorio explained. 

It’s certainly invasive enough that a human would notice it. 

There’s also already been pushback against chipping in the United States.

Indiana, Nevada, Arkansas, Missouri, and Montana prohibit employers from requiring chip implants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as reported in State Net Capitol Journal. Laws passed in California, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Utah prohibit the required implantation of a microchip in any person, not just employees.

Heightened suspicions in recent months

This is not the first time misinformation about microchips and RFID has proliferated online in the past few months — from claims that the federal governmentBill Gates, and schools will use a vaccine for COVID-19 as a vehicle for microchips, to fears about the presence of RFID chips in bras and tires.

Fact check:Yes, there’s a national coin shortage. Here’s why

Recent posts questioning the legitimacy of the very real national coin shortage even link it to the powers that be “wanting us to have a chip in our hand.”

Fact check:A cashless society isn’t imminent and wouldn’t mean total end of cash.

Elise Wang, a lecturer at Duke University and an expert on conspiracy theories, told USA TODAY that she believes microchip conspiracies are trending because they are “far more manageable than the real fears we have right now, like coronavirus and our economy collapsing.”

“The idea of fear of a specific, small device being implanted in you — that feels almost manageable. It’s physical, it could be removed,” she said. “We can grasp that actually better than we can grasp the effect that this disease is going to have on us or the way the economy is going to go from here.”

Fact check:Though nasal test for COVID-19 swabs deep into the nose, nothing is implanted

Fear of tracking is also common, though unfounded, when it comes to RFID.

“It’s a long-standing trope that people think they’re being spied on, followed, traced,” Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, told USA TODAY.

Most microchips are also not constantly transmitting information and do not perform real-time “tracking.”

Take the example of the bras that contain microchips on their tags or care labels, which viral posts claimed were linked to sex trafficking. 

Fact check:Victoria’s Secret’s RFID tags do not track customers

“The only time you can read it is when you have a reader nearby that can read the tag,” Diorio explained. Readers must have antennae, which he said are “reasonably sized” — at least big enough that within a 10-foot read range, they’d be easy to spot, preventing surreptitious scanning.

Even if a bra’s tag was scanned, though, the only information likely to be available would be a product code — not personal information.

Speculative reports on RFID have also fueled conspiracy theories

Rob Brotherton, who wrote a book on conspiracy theories, told USA TODAY that suspicions about microchips have also been fueled by reports about potential future capabilities of the technology.

For example, in 2017, USA TODAY wrote “You will get chipped — eventually.” In 2018, The Atlantic also published the headline “Why You’re Probably Getting a Microchip Implant Someday.”

Fact check:No, schools will not require a COVID-19 vaccine, with RFID chip, for students

“If you’re inclined to suspect that someone might want to track you using some kind of secretive technology and might use the current pandemic as cover to instigate their plan, you don’t exactly have to look too hard to find stories in reputable news sources — not some shady fake news sites — that seem to lend an element of plausibility to your hunch,” Brotherton wrote in an email.

Fact check:Feds buy syringes that may have RFID chips, but no evidence COVID-19 vaccination required

Neither USA TODAY nor The Atlantic suggested that implantation would occur without consent, though, and USA TODAY noted that RFID technology lacks GPS capabilities at this time.

The claims can also be difficult to fact-check because they often point to the future — which is unknown.

“We can’t really say that it’s false because the future hasn’t happened and we don’t know,” Uscinski said. “It may very well happen in the future that we may get chipped, but that doesn’t mean it would be part of some malevolent plot or have anything to do with COVID or Bill Gates or anything like that.”

Why do you think chip implants are unpopular? Would you get one? What are the health, privacy and human concerns regarding chip implants? Why? Why not? Can chips be protected completely from hacking? How are people protected from criminals and criminal activity via chip implants? How should the industry be regulated? Do you know how a chip works? What should you and do you want to know?

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