In March 2009, British researcher Mark Gasson had a chip injected under the skin of his hand. The chip, a slightly more advanced version of the tags used to track pets, turned Gasson into a walking swipe-card. With a wave of his wrist, he could open security doors at the University of Reading laboratory, where his experiment was being conducted, and he could unlock his cell phone just by cradling it.
A year later, Gasson infected his own implant with a computer virus, one that he could pass on to other computer systems if the building’s networks were programmed to read his chip. As Gasson breezed around the the workplace, spreading the virus and corrupting computer systems, certain areas of the building became inaccessible to his colleagues.
At the time of the experiment, theoretical physicist and author of “The Future of the Mind” Michio Kaku told FOX News that demonstrating the ability to spread infection was an “important point” because “we’re going to have more chips in our body and clothing.”
Thousands of Americans already have implanted medical devices, including pacemakers, which are inserted into the chest to treat abnormal heart rhythms, and cochlear implants, which help deaf people to hear.
But the future, Gasson says, is going to focus on implantable technology for healthy people. Part of the reason is that we continually look for ways to make our lives easier. The question is whether we’re willing accept both the unintended and unknown consequences that come with giving up partial control of our bodies to technology.
Human vs. Machine
Implantable microchips provide a more intimate connection with technology than that of any other portable electronic device, like a cell phone or iPod, because the tag becomes a direct part of us when it’s inserted into our body. Implants “have the potential to change the very essence of what it is to be human,” Gasson said at a 2012 TEDX Talk.
The susceptibility of human microchips to cyber attacks is one worry, but Gasson wanted to explore issues beyond common concerns related to privacy and security.
That’s why he conducted the experiment in two stages: A surgeon initially inserted a clean computer chip into his hand, and the computer virus was unleashed a little over a year later. During that time, Gasson and his team were particularly interested in studying the psychological implications of implanted devices.
“There’s an underlying feeling that [having an implantable device] is an alien phenomenon,” said Gasson, a cybernetics expert. The only way to properly explore the psychological aspect was to have the device himself, he said.
What is an RFID implant?
RFID stands for radio frequency identification. The chip doesn’t have its own battery, powered instead by a reader that pulls information out of the chip. The reader gets the chip’s unique ID number and then cross references it to a database. RFID chips are found in lots of things we use every day, including credit cards.
Similar, if not creepier, technology is currently at work in things like Disney World’s MagicBand, which tracks a wearer’s location within the park and connects to that person’s accounts, according to a recent Medium post. These technologies have been useful not just for the company but for park guests — it makes their experience seamless.
These technologies are also being used for payment services: Some people use Google Wallet and Tap-To-Pay services to pay using their phones at stores and in cabs, instead of whipping out their wallet or carrying all their cards with them. The Hilton just recently announced a feature to replace keycards at its hotels. Guests will use an app to access their room.
As these technologies get more advanced and their uses get more varied, why would we be carrying a phone around when we could do all these things with a swipe of the hand?
Why an implant?
The chip implanted in Gasson’s thumb, which is roughly the shape and size of a grain of rice, functions “like a tiny computer.” It can store information like a small USB memory stick.
The chip appears as an extremely small, though visible, bump on the side of his finger. “It does freak people out quite a bit,” Gasson said. “But it doesn’t look grotesque.”
Unsurprisingly, Gasson says the chip did not immediately feel like part of his body. But the distinction faded over time as he used the chip more and more. “Unlike keys or a phone, you don’t have to think about carrying this type of device, and then you seamlessly use it and forget about it.”
Gasson has no plans to remove the chip.
Gasson’s research in human microchips parallels the work of a growing community of people, so-called biohackers, who view microchipping as the next form of human evolution. Hacking tends to have a negative connotation, but this new group of technology enthusiasts offers a different meaning. In their world, the goal of hacking is not to inflict harm, but to transform something from its original purpose into something more useful.
The human body has limitations, but biohackers are constantly thinking of how those limitations can be overcome — how life can be made better or more convenient (like removing the need to carry around keys all the time) through the use of technology.
And the desire for these technologies is there. The company Dangerous Things has developed the first DIY kit for implantable devices, which back in December raised more than $US30,000 from it’s $US8,000 Indiegogo goal. The package comes with everything you need to insert the chip yourself. The chip allows you to interact with other devices by waving your hand or entering a room. You can buy one now for $US99.
In the accompanying video, Dangerous Things founder Amal Graafstra describes how he uses his implant:
The primary use is to be able to program a tag with a url or information you want to share. I use my implants to get into my house, I use it for access control solutions, to get into my back door every day after I get home. I use it get access to my car; I can unlock my car and get in. I use it to log into my computer. I also use it to share contact details with people.
The Dangerous Things kit isn’t the first commercially available RFID microchip — a company called VeriChip actually got FDA approval to market an implant back in 2004. The implant was designed to carry a unique ID number that hospitals could use to pull up a patient’s medical records if he or she were unconscious. But the chip was discontinued in 2010 over privacy concerns.
The failure of VeriChip, later rebranded as PositiveID, highlights the legal issues of microchipping people. Since 2009, at least nine states have either passed laws or proposed bills to prohibit the enforced implantation of chips.
Some states, including California, have enacted an “age of consent” clause, which allows parents to override the right of children under a certain age to decide if they want to be implanted. This inevitably kicks off the discussion of whether it’s ethically sound to microchip one’s child at birth. Supporters love the idea because they say it would prevent kidnappings. Critics worry that if a chip gave parents the ability to track their kids, then predators could, too.
But these ethical questions are not yet urgent. The technology is not yet useful or developed enough for everyone to have it, or even want it.
To start, there are several user-related misconceptions about RFID implants, namely the idea that these chips can be used to track one’s location every second of the day. This is not yet possible, because today’s RFID chips do not contain GPS trackers. Someone could track the computer systems that were accessed throughout the day (in the same way a credit card company can track purchases and where they were made), but the technology doesn’t provide real-time location data.
Other people worry about chips being used to covertly access unauthorised systems. As with other smart cards, which are programmed to be read by specific systems, someone with an RFID implant can’t just go about gaining entry to any old computer system. It takes a specialist reader to access a certain device.
“Anything that’s useful is going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years,” Gasson said, referring to a time in which we may start merging devices created by tech enthusiasts and medical-type technology to do things like store or download memories from the brain.