Hong Kong’s government has been criticised for the uncompromising harshness of its efforts to track and try to eliminate Covid-19 infections – to the point where even old-age pensioners are forced to buy and learn to use a smartphone to dine out. Yet despite the backlash, the tracking of individuals’ movements has become commonplace during the pandemic, and not just here. Most countries have had a stab at contact tracing, with scan-as-you-go apps or even Covid-19 vaccine “passports”, with varying degrees of compliance and success. These efforts started as relatively simple apps, but have progressively become more advanced to now include the use of “artificial intelligence” for example in the Japanese app, to make sure you are where you ought to be. Faced with dramatically higher infection rates because of the Omicron variant which often presents with symptoms you would normally ignore, test-obsessed Britain decided there was no real point to try to carry on with contact tracing – or even isolating. Some 219,000 new cases were registered on a single day in January. Everyone was getting infected and the country ground to a halt as no one would turn up for work due to mandatory self-isolation. Any infected Brit could then just tell their family and friends to stay away for the newly shortened five-day self-isolation period , grab a pack of paracetamol just in case, and delete the tracking app and wait it out with Netflix. All self-isolation will most likely be scrapped in the UK by the end of this week as PM Boris Johnson accelerates plans to live with the virus. Britain’s education secretary says UK is moving beyond coronavirus For all the billions poured into tracing apps, many countries have followed the UK and given up on them, now content to just ride out the fifth wave. The upside for everyday folk is that they can just get on with their lives, although being far more cautious about where they go and who they kiss – including the family pet. This seems to be a new normal we will live with until this particular coronavirus is assimilated into annual flu virus jabs. But what if the tracking had been more effective? What if, next time, everyone carries a personal record of vaccination or antibodies at all times, with an internationally recognised way of collecting and checking that information? What if we all have a chip implanted? Already, we can be turned into cyborgs in a small way with an electronic implant about the size of a grain of rice – similar to those chips a vet inserts under the skin of your pooch. Those, incidentally, give useful temperature readings to the vet when Fido is sick. It sounds like the perfect solution. Such implants already exist for people too, and some folks have been keen to get them voluntarily. I first came across this in 2016 when I read about a Swedish start-up hub called Epicentre, home to about 100 companies at the time, which began chipping its clients’ employees. Between the employees’ thumb and index finger, a microchip was injected into the soft tissue, and with it they could activate office equipment such as printers, open doors, and buy snacks just by waving their hand. To encourage the introduction into the collective, chipped employees would hold parties to welcome newcomers into the cyborg community. The big selling point was the convenience of not having to carry a key card or door tag, cash or credit card, or your phone. It was not to be used by your boss to work out when you went for a pee and how long you took – not suggesting they did this, of course. Under the skin: how insertable microchips could unlock the future Undisputedly, it did create a new trail of data on employees: when they came to work, how long they stayed, where they went in the office and for how long, and what they bought from the tuck shop. When the article ran in 2016, there were about 150 people with chips in their hands. By the end of 2021, there were about 6,000. The chip now carries Covid vaccination data, and as Sweden implemented a Covid passport, for those chipped it is easy to get in with no fuss. These small implants use near-field communication (NFC) technology, just like modern credit cards, mobile payments solutions like Apple Pay, and even our beloved Octopus cards – mine has just gone missing, presumed stolen along with my remaining shopping vouchers. Data can be read from devices in very close proximity. Tracking function for ‘Leave Home Safe’ app not illegal: Hong Kong privacy chief The data on such a chip can be much more personal than that stored on my Octopus card, for example body temperature readings – like those from the dog chip – which sounds very useful in our new dystopian world where health authorities are on watch for any sign of fever. Perhaps it can monitor and track other things too, usefully collected and handed over on demand along with recorded location data. Of course, it is not the collecting of data that is the issue, it is what’s done with it that is the bigger concern. Putting government surveillance aside for a moment, there is already an example of it which leaves a bad taste on the high street. Tracking smartphones, or mobile phones for that matter, is a well-developed industry. If you carry one in your pocket, the handshakes it makes to cell signal base stations, as well as the many Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks around you, can be used to pinpoint your location to within a fairly small radius. This is how the 2020 Hong Kong quarantine at home app was supposed to have worked. It did not relay a GPS location, but did record a proximity to devices around it, including the accompanying bracelet. Japan to screen Winter Olympics athletes’ devices over Covid-19 app fears Such proximity recording technology was first put to commercial, and covert, use targeting shoppers in pre-pandemic Tokyo. It worked like this: Walking down the shopping streets of Ginza and Akihabara – the only two places I was told this was happening over a coffee by the CEO of data tracking firm WirelssGate – my phone would shake hands with Wi-Fi Hotspots and my phone’s movements would be recorded. The device sent whatever details of the smartphone it could get its hands on passively, but heaven help you if you logged onto the free Wi-Fi – it sucked in a lot more after the small print. If I went away and came back another day, more data was recorded and sent back to WirelessGate’s databases for analysis. I could then go into The Gap, for example, and buy a pair of jeans. That reference is for anyone who remembers the movie Minority Report wherein the main character John Anderton’s new eyes once belonged to a Japanese man. When Anderton walks into a store the eyes are recognised by scanners in the door and he is greeted “Hello Mr. Yakamoto, welcome back to the Gap”. My new CEO mate spurted his coffee saying “Yes, we can do that!” How blockchain and QR codes can help to revive international travel Combining movement tracking and transaction history, not necessarily on the phone, like poor Mr. Yakamoto’s before his demise, provides a powerful tool for commerce. WirelessGate could flash me an ad for a special deal on jeans when I am near a branch of The Gap, anywhere. I was reminded of this recently by a viral claim on social media about Microsoft developing a chip implant to fight Covid-19 using something called quantum dot dye technology. Some fact-checking by Reuters revealed the dye technology does not use a microchip, and that old chip shop from six years ago that started all of this, Epicentre in Sweden, had launched implantable microchips holding vaccination details. It was covered by the Post in a short video . Thousands in Europe protest against Covid-19 vaccine passports Although it turned out to be untrue for the crazies that Bill Gates wanted to chip us all – heaven forbid with all the bug fixes and upgrades that would follow, the Chief Disruption Officer of Epicentre, Hannes Sjoblad, believes it’s the way to go. And it could be just the tool for paranoid governments. I just wonder, would anyone willingly go for that? Of course, you could always remove the tracking chip with a kitchen knife, but that is a lot messier and more painful than leaving your smartphone at home and paying with cash.