In 1998, the British scientist Kevin Warwick carried out the first reported human experiment with an RFID implant. He used it to open doors, control lighting and (probably accidentally) launch a movement of DIY cyborgs. Since that year, thousands of “grinders” and other body modification enthusiasts world-wide have implanted themselves with glass capsule RFID transponders, and they’re using them for everything from business cards to Bitcoin wallets.
Earlier this year, I finally joined those folks by first injecting a 125kHz tag into my right hand and then following it with an NFC Type 2 tag in my left. These are just the first steps into what I hope to be a long experiment with passive and active device implantation, and even though they’re minor in scale, they’ve already helped me understand how much fun this technology can be.
HEADS UP! The video below includes a section demonstrating the implant procedure for my NFC tag. It’s not bloody but there’s a big needle involved so maybe steer clear if you’re squeamish.
I bought my glass tags from Dangerous Things, an e-retail shop dedicated to such gadgetry. Amal Graafstra, Dangerous Things Founder, is one of the community leaders in a sub-set of the hacker culture that call themselves bio-hackers. Bio-hackers can basically be thought of as the ‘makers’ of the Transhumanist movement. And while I generally try to distance myself from the Transhumanists (which has become an umbrella for all kinds of credulous wackos) I do identify strongly with body-hackers.
Pretty soon I’ll write more about body-hacking in general, but for now let’s talk RFID! There are a lot of scary things being said about RFID implants and I thought it’d be nice to dispel some myths (as well as disperse some warnings). In the interest of safety, let’s do warnings first:
Any time you break the skin, you’re purposely breaching your first and most reliable line of defense against serious infection! Furthermore, mid- to long-term exposure to a foreign body can cause all kinds of irritation and damage to the surrounding tissue, even if you do everything right. Finally, the body is a complex system and while subdermal implants (objects that rest between the dermis and the fascia) don’t tend to interact with vital structures, it’s still important to know your anatomy and be familiar with important structures near the implant site (like identifying the plumbing and electric in a wall before drilling a blind hole… a lot like that, actually).
Also, please do not implant the glass tags that we sell. If you insist on being chipped, go buy them from Dangerous Things. It’s not my style to drive sales away from SparkFun, but it’s not SparkFun’s style to quality assure our devices for subdermal implant. The folks over at Dangerous Things will sell you a high quality glass tag, in an injection assembly, EO-gas sterilized, for not too much money. This isn’t me telling you to go get chipped, but it is me saying please please please don’t inject yourself with anything you bought from us.
Okay! Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time to grab a roll of tin foil, fashion ourselves a stylish hat, and talk RFID myths:
I generally find that these concerns stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the terms “track” or “tracking.” People who purport to be worried about tracking tend to actually be concerned about “locating,” which is a different technology altogether. They also tend to be the kind of folks who use the word “sheeple…” We’re tracked every day: Our license plates are photographed, our credit/debit transactions are recorded, our social media check-ins and phone calls all generate metadata that can tell a story post factum about where we were and what we did. Location, on the other hand, requires a network of satellites and an active transponder… or a panoptic CCTV system. Location is what your phone does when it gives you directions from your current location… this is above and beyond the scope of RFID.
You can think of RFID as a barcode. There’s no information on the chip except for its serial number, which is only interesting if you can reference it against a database. Unlike most barcodes, however, an RFID has very limited range. A good camera can scan a barcode from yards away, most RFID devices have a maximum range of a few inches. If I were in charge of “tracking” a large population, I probably wouldn’t bother with RFID implants… especially when the population is known to willingly route all of their financial transactions through a central network, register their automobiles and ID tag them, and have reasonably unique fingerprints.
… probably not.
The idea that glass capsule RFID tags cause cancer in human subjects was widely popularized by a “self-published report” by Katherine Albrecht. Katherine is the founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, and author of such illuminated texts as Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move and RFID: The Doomsday Scenario. If you’re not smelling trouble yet, you can refer to her sources: a series of veterinary and toxicological studies from the mid-90s which found lab mice injected with microchips as an incidental part of unrelated experiments sometimes developed subcutaneous sarcomas near the injection site. Lab mice, however, are notoriously prone to sarcomas. In fact, spontaneous disease in commonly used mouse strains was the subject of a Johns Hopkins paper that cites this problem specifically.
This is just another case of a paranoid, uninformed person with an axe to grind polluting the scientific literature (not to mention public opinion). It might have slightly more legitimacy than the “anti-vax” movement.
The bottom line is, we don’t actually know. There’s no reason to think that they do cause cancer in humans, but there’s also no conclusive evidence against it. We just haven’t studied it for long enough. I can tell you, however, that people don’t seem quite as worried about their exposure to the well-known carcinogens in their everyday lives, and that’s because we generally understand calculated risk. They only become a problem when the technology involved is new and scary.
I think that covers the bulk of things worth talking about. Check out the video to hear me address what I consider to be the reasonable concerns. And if you’re interested in grinding, body-hacking or generally Borging it up then please join the community! It seems to be a magnet for a particularly frustrating breed of New-Agers and quasi-Spiritualists, so we could use a few level(-ish) heads. Here are a few sites you might enjoy:
Happy Hacking! And in case I wasn’t clear: (Probably) Don’t Do This!
If you’re looking to take a less intrusive dive into the world of RFID, check out some of our great products (tinfoil hats not included).