human-microchip
Data Privacy and Security

Biohacking: Human microchipping may reveal a tech obsession too far

The idea of microchipping humans used to be the preserve of movies but has become increasingly realistic and common. Argentinian football team Tigre recently announced its “Passion Ticket” for its most diehard fans. It’s a microchip implanted under the skin on the person’s arm, which will be used to scan and open the turnstiles at the team’s grounds, eliminating the need for tickets or ID.

The club insists that the microchip includes only the supporters’ ticket data for gaining entry and will not infringe on privacy. It doesn’t come with a GPS tracker for example. The club’s secretary general Ezequiel Rocino even got his own chip implanted at the launch of the new programme.

If it sounds a bit extreme, it may not be so for much longer as this technology has been brewing for a while. The company VeriChip (now PositiveID) began developing chips that stored medical data back in the early 2000s and was the first FDA-approved chip of its kind.

British engineer Kevin Warwick became known as “Captain Cyborg” in the late ‘90s with the Project Cyborg where he implanted RFID chips in his arms as part of several experiments. He believed that the technology could evolve to the stage of being used in medical procedures.

Fast forward to last year and Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab demonstrated at a tech event the use of a tiny implant in a volunteer’s hand that could be used, at least theoretically, to unlock his phone. The chip, which is usually coated in silicon to prevent any bad reactions from the body, was about the size of a grain and loaded into the skin by a professional piercer.

For enthusiasts of this technology, or biohackers, the applications are seemingly endless. Imagine ditching your Oyster card and instead using a chip in the palm of your hand for the morning commute.

In another case last year, an office block in Stockholm allowed employees to get microchipped for verifying their ID at security entrances and as far back as 2004, a nightclub in Barcelona experimented with implanted RFID microchips for VIP guests to pay for their drinks.

The hobby and experimentation has led to the growth of its own budding sub-culture of biohackers and techy body tinkerers like the Science + Fiction “cyborg fair” in Dusseldorf last November, where start-ups and hackers convened to show off their wares.

For years, we’ve become accustomed to medical equipment like pacemakers being placed inside humans. The crucial difference here is that microchipping yourself is voluntary, not for any medical purpose, and is used for perceived convenience from unlocking phones or gaining entry at gates and turnstiles.

 

The end of privacy?

The chief concern over human microchipping for convenience relates to security and privacy.

Mark Gasson, a British professor from Cybernetics Research Group at the University of Reading, had a chip implanted in his hands in 2009. He was able to programme a computer virus into this chip, which could be spread to other systems that recognised it, such as electronic locks on doors. In his paper on the experiment, Gasson argued that the lines are blurring between human and computer when a person, in theory, can be infected with a computer virus.

These concerns have led to consumer campaigns against microchipping, most notably from privacy and consumer advocate Katherine Albrecht, an outspoken critic of RFID and possible invasions of privacy.

But proponents argue otherwise. Seattle biohacking startup Dangerous Things, which sells injection kits, believe the implant technology is just an extension of the credit cards and IDs we already carry around in our wallets.

 

Obsolete technology

However, getting rid of your microchipping isn’t as simple of as throwing away an expired credit card. Anyone that regrets their microchip or simply wants a change can’t just turn it off or take it out at a whim.

Apple recently stated that it expects most consumers to change their iPhone every three years. The planned obsolescence of consumer technology is a bugbear for many and while replacing our smartphones (and smartwatches, fitness tracks and so on) is an annoyance for consumer, it only affects you financially. How long will a microchip placed beneath the skin remain relevant and need to be replaced in order to keep up with our ever-changing devices?

 

Future applications

Biohackers have been fiddling with human microchips for years but the technology and awareness of it remains in its infancy for now. But companies and events like Dangerous Things or BioNyfiken from Sweden and Science + Fiction could lead to more a widespread use in the future, maybe even with the next five to 10 years. That may be a bit too ambitious but somewhere down the road we could see more applications of chip technology in humans, whether it’s for entertainment or medical purposes.

Google has been reportedly working on sensor-loaded contact lenses that monitor glucose levels for diabetics and could have a range of other medical uses. Proteus Digital Health from California is seeking FDA approval for what it calls a “digital pill”. The sensor, lodged in medication, can be swallowed to track when or if it was taken, and if it was done so correctly.

It’s not just science fiction anymore but whether or not the general public will feel comfortable with chips beneath their skin anytime soon remains to be seen.

 

Further reading:

Under-the-skin implants: Health tracking or Facebook feed to the brain?

What will health tech mean for ordinary people in 2026?

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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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