• Elina V Clavelli

Technophile in Me: A Biohacking Frontier

In grad school, one of my pre-requisites was an Ethics in Technology management class. While thought-provoking, the course did not instill in me any apprehensiveness towards the tech industry. In fact, and you may already know this about me, I love technology. I would be the last person here to give you a morality lecture on what I am about to write. Simply, the technophile in me is currently fascinated by a fairly recent biohacking trend in Europe.

Thousands of people in Sweden are having subdermal microchip implants inserted in their hands. The rice grain-sized chips use Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology that enables them to act in a way that, for example, our smartphones make it possible for us to use Apple Pay. That is, the microchip acts as a digital keycard or wallet.

With the swipe of a hand, pioneers with the implant can now unlock doors, make credit card payments, use certain public transportation, get into concerts with the ticket information stored in the chip, and more.

Let’s dive into a few definitions along the way. “Biohacking” has gotten a bad reputation. Frequently the word brings up a vision of Silicon Valley gurus trying to expand their lifespan beyond 100 years by experimenting on themselves. That is not exactly the case with BioHacks International and its founder Jowan Österlund. Through a mildly uncomfortable procedure similar to a piercing, a professional uses a syringe to inject the microchip into a volunteer’s hand above the thumb. Those brave enough to undergo the injection report only a minor stinging sensation.

In the early days, biohacking carried an air of counter-culture rebellion. Now, if we simplify the terms to basic modification of bodies using technology, we are not stepping too far away from an innocent Apple Watch or Fitbit.

Only this time, it is inside you.

The technology itself is not even new. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for human implants in 2004. These devices are legal. And let’s not be hypocrites here. You might have a very healthy pet walking around your house with a microchip you had a vet implant in them years ago. We’ll get into the GPS tracking dilemma later.

Now let’s take a minute and delve into the aforementioned NFC technology. Its less-sophisticated predecessor, radio frequency identification (RFID), gave way for near-field communication to send information wirelessly from a passive chip to a reader at a distance of approximately 4 centimeters or 1.6 inches. What we get here is the subdermal microchip, implanted in your hand, which replaces credit cards, keys, and train or concert tickets.

The technology lies in the process of swiping your hand over a reader, as in the one your office has instead of a lock. When activated by a reader, a small amount of data flows between it and the microchip via electromagnetic waves. A key point to remember is that the implanted chips are “passive,” as in they contain information that other devices can read, but they cannot read information themselves.

Now, let’s dive into the dystopian nightmare that is upon us. Just kidding! I promised you no ethics lessons, and you will find no conspiracy theories here either. You have to agree though, this topic is fraught with privacy considerations galore. Here’s one for example.

No internet-connected data, no matter how secure at first, is safe forever. Even NFC can be hacked by using a specialized reader and advanced coding skills. Sure, that is a hypothetical scenario, but it is not impossible. Smartphones have battled this by combining NFC technology with biometrics, like unlocking your phone with a fingerprint. A subdermal microchip does not have that kind of security. For upgrades, you would have to have the implant removed and re-inserted to stay current.

What else could go wrong with all this? Well, just like you can thankfully track your cat if he runs away, it would not be impossible for your employer to see if you took too long on that lunch break, for which you paid with the microchip in your hand at the check-out. Without digital safeguards and a promise of online privacy, we could be one step away from a slippery slope.

Why am I bringing up your boss keeping track of how many bathroom breaks you take during your 9-to-5? That would be due to an increasing number of companies holding “implant parties” and paying for their employees to get microchipped. I will just set the Big-Brother-watching-you paranoia aside for now.

Also, do you think it’s just those crazy kids in privacy-unconcerned Sweden that are welcoming this trend with open arms? My friend, as of 2017, approximately 50 employees at a Wisconsin vending machine company consented to inserting microchips into their hands, enabling them to buy snacks, log in to computers, and use office equipment. This has reached our shores.

Not all is creepy though. Swedes view this new technology and the idea of sharing personal information as a sign of transparent society. Sure, it’ll never fly in the United States, but there are uses for it here nonetheless. If or when implantable devices develop far enough, they may help monitor cancer and diseases that cause inflammation. What is now an Apple Watch or a Fitbit today could simply become implantable within the next decade. I know I adore my smartwatch for what it has done in terms of tracking my fitness and improving my exercise regimen.

I will leave you as I always do, with a call to be open-minded. The data collected and shared by implantable microchips is currently small, but it will likely increase. As with any personal data, we should have control. No need to sound the alarm – the data collected and shared by implants is too limited for hacking or surveillance just yet. Like with everything new though, simply continue to stay aware.

Until later!

Originally published on Medium on November 14, 2018.