Brandon Dalaly was at a concert with his friends last month when he was asked to show his vaccine certificate. Unlike his friends, he didn’t have a physical copy or even a digital one saved on his phone.
But when he got to the venue, Dalaly slipped his hand under the scanner – much to the security guard’s surprise. In half a second, a green light blinked somewhere inside his skin, and the scanner threw up his vax details. Dalaly got in without ever having to rummage around for identification.
Dalaly describes himself as a “human cyborg,” quite like other individuals who’ve implanted themselves with microchips: grain-sized capsules that respond to data through signals called radio frequency identification (RFID).
“To me, it’s like having a sixth sense, which you can use to show your vaccine certificate, unlock doors, computers, make payments and share information,” he told VICE.
Dalaly first found out about humans getting microchip implants in 2014. He read about a company that was offering its employees the ability to convert their work badges into a scannable chip that could then be installed under their skin.
After mulling over it for more than six years, Dalaly finally took the decision to inject his very own RFID implant in June 2020, once the technology had gotten enough updates for a single microchip to perform multiple functions.
“I use my microchip to store my medical records and work portfolio, as well as to use it as a crypto wallet and to unlock doors,” he said.
RFID technology has been around for decades. It uses an antenna to send and receive radio waves that transmit information in a manner similar to a barcode scanner. British scientist Kevin Warwick (known by the moniker “Captain Cyborg”) was the very first person in the world to get an RFID implant back in 1998. This was part of an experiment to monitor and record his movements as he opened doors, and turned on lights and computers without lifting a finger.
Decades later, the technology has become commercially available. In fact, it’s fairly common in Sweden, where thousands of people have embraced the technology that opens doors and turns on light switches. With the pandemic increasing our interactions with tech more than ever, an increasing number of people are finding themselves intrigued by the idea of low-key turning their bodies into machines.
Many implantees use their microchips as a method to make contactless payments. Photo courtesy of Jake Bachus
“I didn’t actually know anyone else who had such an implant,” said Dalaly. “So, I joined this Facebook group to speak to others who had also gotten these chips installed.”
RFID Implantees is an online community of more than 4,000 individuals who either have microchips embedded in them or are contemplating getting it.
The group, which requires people to request membership, aims to educate people interested in RFID implants about the many ways they can be coded, from functioning as security locks and car keys to convenient credit cards that can be scanned on demand. These subdermal implants are usually installed in the area between the thumb and the index finger using an injection, though some prefer surgical incisions to install it. While many members have only one microchip, some have more than 20.
Sandra Würthner, a travel blogger from Austria, currently has 25 such chips in her that make her life easier in multiple ways, from storing payment details to starting her car. In 2017, she became one of the first people in the world to inject an implant that could store payment information. For her, the convenience that comes with being a cyborg overshadows the negativity and toxic reactions she usually gets.
“I’ve always been a sci-fi fan and super into Star Trek, so it’s cool to feel like I have this technology inside me,” she told VICE.
But, for many, microchips also come loaded with unique codes that can be programmed to perform specific functions.
Jake Bachus, an ethical hacker from Michigan, USA, already had the usual implants to unlock doors and store information. But he saw that these inconspicuous implants had the potential to become the ultimate security solution.
“I built and programmed a regular implant to become the key to my gun safe,” he told VICE. For Bachus, a microchip inserted into his skin posed less of a threat than for people to access something as potentially dangerous as guns, especially since he has ADHD and often loses his keys or forgets passwords. So, he quite literally took matters into his own hands. “It is faster than a digital keypad, more reliable than biometrics, and more secure, since someone can see you punch in numbers in a keypad.”
Patrick Paumen poses along with all the devices he has coded into his microchip, from car keys to ID card. Photo courtesy of Patrick Paumen
For many self-proclaimed cyborgs, the added layer of security that comes from knowing their scannable codes are stored safely under their skin is a major factor that influences their decision. However, data privacy experts have previously expressed concerns about whether the microchips can be used to trace, hack or steal sensitive data by literally getting under a person’s skin.
In fact, the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) of the American Medical Association said in a 2007 report that RFID implants could lead to privacy concerns because, although information can’t be stored inside the RFID transponder, there was no assurance that the information in the chip was being protected properly.
However, tech enthusiasts continue to argue otherwise.
“It’s easier to track a person using their smartphone than it is through a microchip, which are passive devices and not powered by a battery, but instead, require the implants to be within 2-3 millimetres of the RFID reading device,” said Patrick Paumen. The Netherlands-based biohacker has more than 31 implants, many of which are meant to store passwords to his email and even his Wordpress website.
Many implantees say their microchips can only be accessed when someone is close enough to hold their hands, a risk many seem willing to take.
While these microchips are often a conversation starter for those implanted, many have also been on the receiving end of comments that question their very allegiance to humanity.
“We often get told that it’s the ‘mark of the beast,’ that it signals we have now been taken over by Satan,” said Dalaly. “I remember I was dating this girl, and when she took me home to meet her parents, her dad said that my microchip meant the ‘end of days’ were near, and even quoted a line from the Book of Revelations that referred to Satan’s mark.”
He added that given how relatively niche the space still is, the uncertainty and anxieties around inserting a technological object into your skin tend to elicit mixed responses. Others, like Würthner, admit to having lost multiple friends who questioned her many subdermal implants, arguing that they were dangerous. Implantees also often get asked whether their scannable chips ever get rejected, or what it’s like to walk through metal detectors at airports.
For many implantees, however, the biggest risk involved is redundancy, given that constant technological updates could render their RFID chips obsolete.
This is the case especially for Jack Kingsman, who feels that none of his three implants have been really useful. “One of my chips has a poor antenna, which outweighs any regular usefulness,” he admitted. “My other implant is a proximity card emulator that can be used to enter buildings or elevators, but sadly [it] no longer works due to a programming error shortly after I got it installed. So, I think I have some useless chips in me right now. But I've never been bothered to take them out since they’re body-compatible for the long term.”
The process of installing multiple implants. Photo courtesy of Jack Kingsman.
Others have also admitted that the redundancy of magnetic implants, an experimental prototype that preceded the use of RFID implants, has led to concerns over whether the current microchip models can also stay useful over time.
Magnet implants were an experimental prototype that preceded those coded with RFID. Photo courtesy of Patrick Paumen
But despite the potential dangers and drawbacks, this community continues to embrace their implants with pride, choosing to favour the convenience factor over an uncertain future.
“Humans are always hiding behind a device anyway, so why not get them installed inside [them] instead?” said Dalaly.
For many, the group has also become a space to bounce ideas off each other on all the intriguing ways their microchips can be coded, from a watch where numbers glow under the skin to a flash drive that can store all data subdermally.
“Unlike piercings and tattoos, these implants aren't designed to change your appearance, and instead, add practical uses to our bodies,” Paumen said. “Technology keeps evolving. We humans keep evolving. But for some of us, it isn't happening quick enough. So, we take matters – and implants – into our own hands. Literally.”