When Information Storage Gets Under Your Skin
Tiny implants can replace keys, store business cards and medical data—and eventually a lot more
Patrick Paumen doesn’t have to worry about forgetting his keys and being locked out of his apartment. That is because he doesn’t need a key anymore—he simply unlocks the door with a wave of his hand.
The 32-year-old IT expert from the Dutch city of Heerlen is one of a growing number of people with electronic implants under their skin, mostly to use as keys or for identification.
Mr. Paumen has several such implants, or tags, embedded in the fatty tissue of his hands and his lower arm. He uses separate tags to unlock not only his apartment door, but also his office and the gate to a secure parking lot at work. Another stores information he would otherwise put on a business card—name and contact details—and yet another holds similar information for nonbusiness encounters.
The implants can be activated and scanned by readers that use radio frequency identification technology, or RFID. Those include ordinary smartphones and readers already installed in office buildings to allow entrance with a common ID card.
Mr. Paumen says the tiny devices simplify his life. When nearing the secure office parking lot, he says, “I just roll down the window, stick my arm out and let the reader at the gates scan the implant, which is just below my little finger. I don’t have to worry about losing my access card.”
Done in secondsThere is no comprehensive data on how many people have RFID implants in their bodies, but retailers estimate the total is 30,000 to 50,000 people globally.
The fact that the tags can’t be lost is one attraction. Another, users say, is that the tags don’t operate under their own power but rather are activated when they’re read by a scanner. That means they can never be rendered useless by a dead battery like smartphones.
It only takes a few seconds to inject the small glass cylinder containing a tag, the size of a grain of rice, under the skin. It can be done by anyone, but proponents say it is best done by a trained person with sterilized equipment to lower the risk of infection.
Once a tag is implanted, there can be an adjustment period: “They can move a little bit depending on skin type and activities,” says Quentin Inglis, owner of the Kalima Emporium, a tattoo and piercing studio in Worthing, England, who has implanted tags for several customers. Mr. Inglis keeps his business card on an implanted tag. “I do a lot of climbing, so mine moved around a bit until it found a position it was happiest with,” he says.
Medical potentialImplanted tags have a demonstrated potential for use in travel. Andreas Sjöström, the head of digital solutions at Sogeti, a technology consulting unit of Capgemini Group, used an implanted tag loaded with information identifying him as a Scandinavian Airlines customer to board an SAS flight from Stockholm to Paris for the first time in December, and has since used the tag several times for SAS flights. The tag contains the same information some SAS passengers normally have on a sticker used for the same purpose, and is read by the same scanner the airline uses for those stickers.
For instance, Kevin Warwick, deputy vice chancellor at Coventry University in England and an expert in cybernetics, says that people who suffer from epilepsy often wear pendants that identify them as having epilepsy and sometimes provide emergency contacts and some basic information on how to help a person having a seizure. But the pendant can be lost or forgotten—a tag cannot. Paramedics and other first responders could be trained to check for tags, he says, and perhaps people with epilepsy could have a small tattoo or some other marker to help other people find the tag.
Another idea for medical use: “In hospitals, you could have a small thing implanted to make sure this is the right patient or person for this operation, to reduce the number of errors there are in medical operations,” Dr. Warwick says.
The tags also can be used to access medical records. Information stored on a tag can easily be updated with the tag remaining in place.
Advocates also hope it won’t be long before the implants will allow them to make payments in cafes or shops, the way smart cards are used. Mr. Sjöström says the technology is capable of enabling such transactions, if software standards are developed to allow them. Data security is also an issue here, he says, as the current generation of implants isn’t capable of the same level of encryption as existing electronic payment systems.
Ethical issuesSkeptics point to ethical concerns that will have to be addressed before tag implants become more common. While there may be no issue with implanting a tag under the skin of consenting adults, things could become tricky if a person doesn’t want it or isn't in control of the tag’s content.
For instance, the use of a tag “is ethically straightforward and even useful” for people who can’t grip a key because of extreme arthritis or the loss of a hand, says Arianne Shahvisi, a lecturer in ethics at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the U.K. But while tags also could be used by people with dementia to carry identifying information and to ensure that they would never lose their keys, it would be “troubling” in such cases because the patient may not be able to give proper consent to the procedure.
Privacy concerns will also have to be addressed before tag implants can reach their full potential. Although people promoting them say the implants currently on sale can only be picked up by readers in very close range, some people worry that strangers could still tap their personal information without their knowledge or consent.
And while many adults are repelled by the idea of manipulating a perfectly healthy body, young people may accept it as they do most technology surrounding them. Take Patrick and Birthe Kramer, a couple in Hamburg, Germany, who have implants that unlock the door to their home. Their 2-year-old son, whose body remains chip free, already imitates his parents by trying to open the front door with a swish of his hand.