July 2018.

Ten volunteers received a microchip at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne to mark the launch of Pause Fest, a technology and culture festival now in its eighth year.

Their chips were preloaded with a three-day pass to the festival and will be programmed to unlock the door to their home, gym, or workplace, or potentially to function as their public transport pass. The volunteers will take part in a panel with Heffernan to talk about whether they found the chips useful.

Heffernan has had one microchip between her thumb and forefinger for almost 18 months, which she uses to unlock her front door. She got another on the outer edge of her other hand last November to access her office at Melbourne University.

She is doing a PhD on the applications of insertable technology and decided to get a chip after a year spent listening to people wax lyrical about the convenience of never having to carry their keys.

“If I want I can just walk out without any keys, my key is in my hand so I can’t forget it, which is handy because I have locked myself out before,” Heffernan said.

“Some people use it to unlock their phones or their computers. Some people have modified their cars and one person even their motorbike, so it’s not only access to their house but it’s access to their vehicle and to turn it on. Obviously that requires quite a bit of microelectronics and physical mechanical work, and that’s not accessible for everyone.”

Heffernan’s original chip usually contains a link to her website, which people can access if they scan her hand with their phone, provided they have the near-field communication (NFC) capabilities switched on. At the moment it just says “hello” because she is showing that it could be reprogrammed. The security risk, she said, was quite low.

Insertable microchips made global headlines earlier this year when Stockholm firm Epicentre gave its staff the option of having an insertable chip in lieu of a swipe card. Three Square Market, a tech company in Wisconsin, followed suit.

Both stories raised concerns that the chip would allow employees to be tracked and their productivity mapped by companies, which would be able to tell how many bathroom breaks they were taking. But Heffernan said that was more a reflection of science fiction-obsessed news reporters than any actual privacy risk. She said it was possible the chip could be used to track bathroom breaks but that would only be if employees required people to swipe to get into the bathroom, a function that could also be tracked via a standard swipe card.

“The chip has no tracking capabilities,” Heffernan said. “They don’t have any battery and they don’t have any GPS sensors … If someone was going to track you, they’d use your mobile phone.”

The current models of microchip are not much more sophisticated than those that have been embedded in the neck of most household pets for more than two decades.

Developers are working on a model that will be able to hold more than one number, meaning the same card can be used to hold multiple access codes and on a chip that has the level of encryption required to be able to handle payments.

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