What I Learned Implanting an NFC Chip Under My Skin
In my junior year of high school I learned about biohacking and became fascinated with the concept, especially the DIY community and products that developed around the movement. Naturally I had to try for myself.
Common Biohacking Procedures
The two main DIY procedures commonly carried out by biohackers on the internet are magnet implants and NFC implants.
Magnet implants involve a small incision at the tip of the finger into which a coated neodymium magnet (~3mm) is slipped under the skin. The incision is sealed shut with a bandage and the implantee is instantly rendered a new 6th sense – the ability to feel magnetic fields in their surroundings. In reality, this "6th sense" utilizes the existing touch receptors found in the fingertip to feel the magnet move. Miniscule movements in the implanted magnet are caused when it passes through magnetic fields. Even fields from electricity passing through cables and everyday electronics can be felt. The fingertip is one of the most sensitive places on the body (Weinstein, 1968), so it works well when teamed with a magnet.
A magnet in your fingertip allows you to perceive a new layer of the physical world, but also traps you to the sensor-tolerable constraints of that layer. Just like how a person's ability to hear forces them to stay away from loud noises, with a magnetic implant you'd have to avoid strong magnetic fields, such as MR machines.
Magnet implants are cool but not where I wanted to start my biohacking adventure. Fingertip surgery is too hard core for me.
That brings us to NFC (Near Field Communication) implants, that let you store packets of data in a chip under your skin and then communicate that data wirelessly at a close range. NFC technology is already all around us in cell phones, key cards, and subway passes where transceivers in POS systems, other cell phones, and electronic locks communicate with the embedded chips to make life way more convenient for us. We can unlock doors and pay for things with just a wave of a card or phone.
This same technology is crammed into a tiny glass cylinder no larger than 2mm wide and 12mm long. Glass makes a safe coating. The procedure works by inserting a large hollow needle containing the chip through the skin, where once positioned, a plunger is used to deposit the chip.
Speaking from experience, the process is quick and relatively painless. I did the implant on myself with no complications.
You can watch me implanting the chip in this video I made documenting the process.
Imagine being able to replace Apple Pay and your office key card with a tiny chip safely tucked away inside of your hand. Implanted NFC chips are a secure identification system that can be used for authenticating transactions and can't be stolen or lost (without carnage).
That's the potential of the NFC implant that excited me enough to plunge one into my hand.
What I came to realize after installing the implant is that there is no easy way to replace the NFC devices in your life with your own. Even the most basic use cases, such as key cards, are difficult if not entirely impossible to clone to an implantable NFC due to the security layers built into them. Key cards are designed to be difficult to clone.
Something useful like a contactless credit card definitely can't be cloned onto an implant for practical purposes. For this reason, there are services that will even strip the NFC chip off of your payment card and convert it into an implant by applying a biocompatible coating.
Since I couldn't use my NFC chip with other systems, I built my own transceiver to store an encryption key in my hand, which could unlock files on my computer. Cool, secure, and potentially useful but definitely not the future I signed up for. That future, is yet to be created.
I honestly did think the implant would be more useful but it was ultimately up to me to build use cases around myself which quickly overwhelmed the excitement and practicality of it.
The Future of NFC Implants
I think the NFC implants will eventually become mainstream regardless of how distopian it may feel right now. Several factors are involved.
When the Airpods came out we went from keeping tech in our pockets to the tech making direct contact with our skin. The same can be said for all new wearables, which continue to take greater advantage of this direct contact with advanced features like EKG. It's only a matter of time before tech passes the barrier of skin as it did with the barrier of clothing. Tech intimacy has a half life.
Meeting the Usefulness Threshold
To break the barrier of skin tech needs to be really useful. An implant needs to deliver extreme value to the implantee, like pacemakers and joint replacements.
Meeting the threshold can also mean changing the threshold itself. Usefulness is completely subjective and non medically necessary implants happen every day in plastic surgery practices around the world.
Physicians need to acknowledge the tech as more people adopt it. Implantable tech is unproven and often performed by tattoo artists or other body modification artists. Before widespread adoption, there will need to be at least a few physicians willing to vouch for the safety of a certain product and involved in development from the start.
Implantable tech will also change how MR scans are performed. I had to remove my NFC chip because of an MRI that the couldn't be performed with my chip. Despite the fact that there are various studies that show that implantable NFC chips are safe in high power MRIs, my implant didn't pass the hospital's protocol. This is understandable because if your implant is ripped out or explodes the responsibility falls on the physician. They have no idea what's actually inside when I tell them I have an NFC implant. Safety needs to be proven and doctors need to know more about implants.
The evidence supporting the safety of NFC/RFID implants will have to be codified in a way that physicians acknowledge. An alternative is a special waiver a patient can sign to accept the risk of the implant during an MR procedure. I don't know if that's actually legal, but it seems reasonable.
There have been RFID chips approved for human implant since '04, so the regulatory precedence for these devices exists. If anyone were to offer an implant procedure to the public, it would have to be fully compliant. People don't want to implant themselves or go out of their way to find and pay a body mod shop willing to do the procedure. With regulatory approval the UX will become a lot more transparent, comfortable, and easy.
Easy Extraction and Replacement
Inevitably, implants will malfunction or become outdated over time. An easy way to extract old implants and replace them with something new will be imperative to widespread adoption.
When I had my implant removed it was done by an actual hand surgeon in an operating room with a full team of nurses. Novocain was used, and the chip was dug out through a small incision. This approach was invasive, expensive, and slow. A better way can be developed.
An NFC chip only works within a network that can authenticate it. Therefor an NFC chip is only as useful as its network. Bigger networks will need to emerge because of the high usefulness threshold of implants.
My Charlie Card (Boston's subway pass) only works on the Boston subway. A college ID may work on doors around campus, for payments at the dining halls, and maybe even provides access to the campus bus – yet these are still within the same network where that specific card can be authenticated. The bigger the network, the more convenient it is to use the card.
Would you implant one chip for use with the subway and another for use on campus? A third that works as a payment method? No way. Since I don't think we can expect people get more than one implant, there needs to be a way that a single chip can replace all or most of day to day NFC use cases. Otherwise the usefulness threshold won't be met.
Looking at the way mobile phones utilize NFC and how smart credit cards like Stratos and FUZE combine authentication networks in payments, you may start getting a sense of how NFC implants can offer unique value propositions to both the users and those that administer RFID enabled networks.
An authentication API provided by the implant company, for example, could allow the chip to act as a trusted key in other networks that access that API.
To start, I think someone will have to create a really useful NFC key-fob/card with a massive, open network. If it's worth implanting, it's probably worth carrying around externally in your wallet or purse.
Once there's enough adoption of the authentication network, implants will become an option for those seeking extra security and convenience.