High Tech, Under the Skin
By ANNA BAHNEY
Published: February 2, 2006
WILLIAM DONELSON'S left hand gripped the paper-covered arm of an antique
barber chair at a tattoo and piercing shop in Cambridge, Ontario. His feet
bounced gently on the chrome footrest as he waited for his implant.
The piercer — whose day is usually spent inserting rings into the eyebrows
and navels of teenage girls — snapped on purple latex gloves and lifted a
four-millimeter-wide sterilized needle to Mr. Donelson's hand.
"I'm set," Mr. Donelson said with a deep breath. He watched as the needle
pierced the fleshy webbing between his thumb and forefinger and a microchip
was slid under his skin. At last he would be able to do what he had long
imagined: enhance his body's powers through technology.
By inserting the chip, a radio frequency identification device, Mr. Donelson
would literally have at his fingertips the same magic that makes security
gates swing open with a swipe of a card, and bridge and tunnel traffic flow
smoothly with an E-ZPass. With a wave of his hand he planned to log on to
his computer, open doors and unlock his car.
Implanting the chip was a relatively simple procedure but highly symbolic to
Mr. Donelson, a 21-year-old computer networking student so enthralled with
the link between technology and the body that he has tattoos of data-input
jacks running down his spine. They are an allusion to an imagined future
when people might be plugged directly into computers. His new chip, complete
with a miniature antenna and enclosed in a glass ampoule no bigger than a
piece of long-grain rice, has a small memory where he has stored the words
"People are already using their cell phones as an extension of their
communication ability," Mr. Donelson said, indicating the wireless cell
phone earpiece affixed to his ear. "It is pretty much a part of you anyway."
The difference between a device resting in one's ear and inside the body is
"a pretty small step," he said.
Mr. Donelson and three friends, who had driven 100 miles from their homes in
Lockport, N.Y., to have the implants inserted by a piercer, Jesse Villemaire,
whom they had persuaded to do the work, are part of a small group, about 30
people around the world, who have independently inserted radio frequency
identification chips, known as RFID tags, into their bodies, according to
Web-based forums devoted to what participants call getting tagged.
The tiny silicone chips, which for years have been safely implanted in pets
and livestock to identify their owners, come with an encoded string of
numbers. (Some chips have a small amount of memory that can be updated.)
They are read by a scanner two to four inches away, much like a bar code
except the chips don't need to be visible to be read.
Digital visionaries have long foreseen a future when people and computers
merge. In most cases the convergence is imagined as a nightmare, as in
"Blade Runner" or the "Matrix" movies. But Mr. Donelson is part of a
pro-convergence camp that points out the future is closer than many people
imagine, and argues it is not nearly so threatening.
Digital products people use every day are becoming more integral to the
human body, they note. Cameras, storage drives and MP3 players are designed
with mirrored surfaces or crystals to make them more attractive to wear as
necklaces and pendants. Bluetooth wireless technology enables jackets and
sunglasses to double as electronic devices, and a new cellphone earpiece,
the Motorola H5 Miniblue, sits inside the ear almost like a hearing aid.
People who feel naked without their cell phones, who carry around a set of
keys with storage devices like flash drives that contain their digital life,
who have their entire music collection on an iPod, have already created an
information envelope around themselves, said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a
research director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.
"They are living a life in which they have a symbiotic relationship with
communication technologies that are as familiar a part of the body as braces
or glasses," Mr. Pang said. "For these people, the idea of putting an RFID
tag in themselves is no stranger than putting in fillings."
Implanting chips in people is not new. Some employees of the Mexican
Ministry of Justice are implanted with chips that give them a fast track
through their building's security, and a Barcelona dance club offered chips
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration gave approval in 2004
to a Florida company, Verichip, to implant RFID chips in people as a means
to retrieve medical information. The information is not on the chip; it is
in a computer database that hospitals gain access to by scanning patients
who carry a chip beneath their skin. In the last three years, Verichip says,
it has implanted more than 2,000 people around the world and 60 in the
United States. Its chips are a proprietary technology and cost about $200
"The physical reality of the chip in the body is no big deal," said Amal
Graafstra, who in March 2005 became the first known person to independently
have himself implanted with a chip by having a surgeon friend place it in
his hand. "But the symbolism of the tag is much more of a big deal as a
Mr. Graafstra, along with Mr. Donelson and his friends, consider themselves
part of an informal underground of implanters, self-styled "midnight
engineers" who are dedicated to designing applications for their chips and
exploring the philosophical implications. They buy cheap RFID chips on the
Internet for as little as $2 and wire scanners to their computers, car doors
and other devices to exploit the technology.
Mr. Graafstra, 29, the owner of a mobile technology company in Bellingham,
Wash., has an implant in each hand, which he uses to get in the front door
of his home, unlock his computer and occasionally get into his car. He has
written a book, "RFID Toys: 11 Cool Projects for Home, Office and
Entertainment," to be published this month by Wiley.
His girlfriend, Jennifer Tomblin, a 23-year-old marketing student, thought
Mr. Graafstra's hobby was odd at first. But over time she became convinced
of their usefulness. She got an implant in December.
"I like not having to fumble for keys when I'm coming in with groceries and
everything, you just lean up against the door, and it opens," she said.
Certainly RFID implants have their detractors.
"We have to look down the road and think more than about how cool it is
today," said Liz McIntyre co-author of "Spychips: How Major Corporations and
Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID."
"We have to look at how it may be ushering in a society in which we are all
numbered in the future," she said. "Maybe stores would require us to scan
our hands or an insurance company says unless you have this chip we can't
Other objections to implanting chips include the safety of procedures done
in nonmedical settings.
Some doctors have done the procedures in people's homes, and others have
implanted chips in their offices after patients signed forms acknowledging
that long-term studies have not been done on their safety. Piercers treat
the implants much like any other procedure, instructing people to keep the
site dry to avoid infection and advising them that swelling and redness
should last a week.
On Web forums some people profess to have implanted themselves with an
injector gun used for animals, but the consensus among others is that doing
so is dangerous.
Christian Rigby, 31, who runs a Internet forum for people independently
"tagged" (tagged.kaos.gen.nz) describes the forum as a resource for those
interested in sharing experiences and technology. "You get to be a part of a
leading technology which is, at the heart of it, what all geeks really want
to do," he said.
The circle may be widening as implants intrigue a growing number of people.
Mr. Rigby's Internet forum had 2,278 hits in December. As of mid-January, it
had 1.1 million for the month.
Another spur to recent interest is a video posted on the Internet (
http://www.electric-clothing.com/chipped.html ) by Mikey Sklar of his
implant procedure in November, performed by a surgeon friend in New York
City. Mr. Sklar, 28, formerly a Unix engineer at an investment bank, said
that because the hardware is relatively inexpensive, small and technical,
college students will pick it up. "Freshman students will modify their dorms
with RFID readers," he predicted. "That's where the growth is going to be."
At least one supplier of RFID chips, Matt Trossen, owner of PhidgetsUSA in
Westchester, Ill., is skeptical about the ultimate appeal of implants.
"Think about how many people have never gotten their ears pierced," he said.
"A lot of people just don't want to stick themselves."
Mr. Trossen sells his chips to people who use them for education and
robotics and his Web site includes a disclaimer stating that the company
does not advise consumers to implant them in humans or animals because the
tags are not sold as medical products and are not sanitized.
He said that one could use an RFID chip just as easily for turning on
computers and opening doors by putting it on a key chain or card. Although
he could see a day when society would deem it acceptable for babies to be
tagged at birth with chips bearing their Social Security number, now the
technology for making the chips useful for home applications is beyond most
"For a kid to say, 'Mom and Dad I need this implant,' " Mr. Trossen said,
"it would be like me running out and buying an atom collider. It is a nice
conversation piece, but I can't really use it."