People took a break recently from all their vapid political bickering and constant outrage in order to express even more outrage over a vending machine company in Wisconsin (yes, we’ve been on a Wisconsin kick lately). A company called Three Square Market has come up with a new employee perk – RFID chip implants – that “make everyone’s lives easier”. Okay, so we have to admit we’re outraged a bit too, but not everyone feels that way. About half the company’s employees opted for the chips, a number that we found surprisingly high. There’s no cause for alarm unless people are penalized for not adopting the chips, right? We’re not sure about your thoughts on this, but it will be a cold day in hell before we think this is somehow a good idea:
As it turns out though, this is hardly anything new. According to an article by CNN, Professor Kevin Warwick, director of cybernetics at the University of Reading in the U.K., became the first human to host a microchip on Aug. 24, 1998. A decade later, the first commercial applications began to surface.
RFID Implants for Humans Aren’t New
In February of 2006, a Cincinnati company called CityWatcher made history by being the first company in the world to implant microchips into their employees for the purpose of allowing access to buildings and security systems. In June of this year, state-owned Swedish rail company SJ began letting commuters use the chip in place of tickets, though they had to sort out some kinks when people’s LinkedIn profiles started popping up when the chips were scanned. A Belgian marketing firm called NewFusion uses the chips as ID badges to access doors and computer systems. A Swedish gym chain allows you to use the chip for memberships, and a Swedish incubator called Epicenter allows the technology for office access.
You may be noticing a recurring theme here – Sweden. As one of the most high-tech countries in the world, only 2% of transactions are performed with cash (compared to 33% in the USA) and around 2,000 people have already been injected with RFID implants for humans. So where are these chips coming from? Not surprisingly, the answer involves Sweden as well. But before we talk about who is selling these chips, let’s become familiar with some of the terminology behind the underlying technologies.
What is RFID and NFC?
“Radio Frequency IDentification” or RFID is precisely what it says on the tin. Radio frequencies are used to read information from a “tag” that can be either “passive” or “active”. A passive tag has no power source while an active tag is supplied with power, usually from a small battery. The method used to communicate with the tags is referred to as “Near Field Communication” or NFC. The technology is hardly new, and adoption has been accelerating due to lower costs to produce RFID tags along with miniaturization. As far back as 2009, scientists were using RFID tags to note that there is no such thing as realtor ants because realtors add no value, just like human resources:
More pragmatic use cases for RFID include tracking things like pets, goods, baggage, retail items in stores, sport memorabilia, and now humans. Let’s look at a few companies that are developing RFID chips for use in humans.
Who Makes the RFID Chip Implants?
Our first company is actually a Swedish startup (no surprise there) that’s turning the “Internet of Things” into the “Internet of Us” with their implantable RFID chip for humans. Founded in 2012, Swedish startup Biohax has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop a hardware product along with workshops and lectures that educate people about “biohacking”. Their RFID tag itself, the NTAG216, is actually made by NXP Semiconductors (NASDAQ:NXPI) with the below specifications:
888 bytes isn’t very much storage, about enough to store half of this article without images. These tags were designed by NXP for mass market applications such as retail, gaming, and consumer electronics. They sell on Alibaba for about 45 cents apiece. Biohax then takes these tags, attaches a small antennae to them, and then drops them into a capsule made of bioglass which was approved for use in humans back in 1994. Then, the capsule is injected into the web of skin between the thumb and forefinger. Once that capsule is injected, you simply need to place your hand in near proximity to an NFC enabled device like a smartphone for the data on the tag to be read. That’s it. The obvious use case here is that the tag contains various unique identifiers that can be used to grant access, validate membership, or even provide an address for bitcoins.
With a name like Dangerous Things, our next company is probably less likely to be less of a force behind commercial adoption, but a pioneer nonetheless. Founded in 2013, Seattle based startup Dangerous Things offers “custom gadgetry for the discerning biohacker” so that you can buy a kit like this one and start creating your own use cases:
That kit contains everything you need to inject yourself with the same NTAG216 device offered by Biohax. The founder of Dangerous Things is a man by the name of Amal Graafstra who raised over $30,000 through crowdfunding to bring his product to market. He’s somewhat of a legend, having installed his first implant back in 2005 which he used to access his home, open car doors, log on to his computer, and even control his own smart gun.
RFID Chip Implants for Humans and Security
When you talk about implanting chips in humans, immediately people will start to think of tracking. Well in case you were unaware, that smartphone you carry around 24 hours a day is also a tracking device that can be used to uncover facts as obscure as whether or not you attended President Trump’s inauguration and where you ate lunch afterwards. The implanted RFID chip on the other hand (get it?), can only be read when it is near a reader. This means that at any point where people’s hands touch something, you could potentially try and read their chips. One fellow started to raise some serious questions when he used his RFID chip to surreptitiously load malware on people’s smartphones. As we move more towards miniaturization, the functionality of this chip is likely to increase raising even more questions about security. Speaking of which, just how the fcuk are you supposed to upgrade these things?
As investors, we’re interested in how we can make money off this whole thing and we’re just not seeing this as being very lucrative. Maybe we can imagine a future where your wallet disappears entirely into an implantable RFID chip, but then why not just use your smartphone for that? If there is a company in the future that offers this at a large scale, how will they make money on this? The hardware is cheap as chips (get it?), the service of injecting the chips can be performed by a robot who works for next to nothing, and any sort of information gleaned from the chipped human isn’t likely to be used for anything (hopefully) due to privacy concerns. Now maybe if the chip is evolved to increase the storage memory of our brains, then we might find the notion more appealing. Until then, we’re perfectly content carrying around an RFID card in our good old fashioned leather wallets.
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