A few months ago, on a last-minute whim of curiosity, I attended a biohacking gathering. When I departed L.A. for a random small town address in the Mojave desert, I did not know I would return 36 hours later with my hand wrapped in a bandage, having willingly undergone an unnecessary medical procedure in a wacky garage-turned-mad-science-lab with some guy I'd never met. I did not know I’d be grinning all the way home because I’d become one step closer to being a cyborg.
I couldn’t have predicted any of this, but that’s what happened, and here’s what I did. I got an NFC microchip implant in my left hand. There’s video. [Warning: syringe & small amount of blood]
Here are answers to some questions you may have.
• What is it? How does it work? What does it do?
Here is what's in my hand. It's like what we microchip our pets with, but slightly different. It's a tiny chip about the size and shape of a grain of rice capable of storing a small amount of data (880 bytes). From Techopedia:
Near field communication (NFC) is a wireless technology that allows a device to collect and interpret data from another closely located NFC device or tag.
NFC employs inductive-coupling technology, in which power and data are shared through coupled inductive circuits over a very close proximity of a few centimeters. NFC is often employed through mobile phones or credit cards, where information may be read if it is passed very close to another such device or NFC tag.
Basically, when you use an NFC device (which are built in to many types of Android phones), you supply power to the tag through its itty-bitty antenna, and can simultaneously read or write to it. You've probably heard of RFID, which NFC is a subset of. Specifically, RFID operates on a range of frequencies from kHz (low) to GHz (high), and NFC is exactly on the 13.56 MHz band.
To enable NFC on an Android, it's as simple as turning on the setting, no app required. When your Android phone detects the presence of a tag nearby, the phone then reads the data and prompts you (for example, asks if you'd like to open the URL it just read). Unfortunately, iPhones cannot read passive NFC tags at this time. Perhaps a future version of iOS will.
Why did I do it?
I've been loosely following the biohacking movement for a few years, and I'd read about people that do this sort of thing, and much, much more extreme procedures. I know a handful of people who have undergone finger magnet implants, a more risky procedure in my opinion because it's more of an actual minor surgery in a very sensitive area, with a greater chance of rejection if it's not done properly. Because my life schedule for the next few weeks wasn't going to be ideal for the healing process, I decided that the NFC implant was a better ‘baby step’ to take first.
I really like the idea of a body modification that you can interact with via technology. Being a person that works with computers, I just think it's really cool that my hand can store computer data on it—nearly a kilobyte. It isn't much, but you can get creative with how you choose to use it.
The biohacking community is convinced that what they are doing is the way of the future. While not everything they do may seem super practical now, it's still in its experimentation phase, and remember that every technology goes through an initial stage where it isn't immediately useful. Enough people have undergone NFC implants at this point that I hardly consider myself a pioneer, but it is a first step into augmenting the capabilities of the body—in this case, my hand is now able to passively communicate with a smartphone. There are already lots of cutting-edge medical applications that fall under the umbrella of biohacking, so why not enhance a body that is working "normally"? How is it really any crazier than any other kind of body mod, especially when the outcome is more than visual aesthetic? What about other non- medically necessary enhancements, like IUDs? To really understand ourselves and how our bodies work, we're going to have to get under the skin.
What are some examples of applications?
Currently, mine provides a link to a contact form on my personal website, so that when I meet someone and they scan me with their phone, they can fill out some details and we can keep in touch.
You could use it as a key by storing an id on it, if the lock in question is NFC-activated. You could potentially do your own hack so that you can unlock a door or something like that with it.
You could store metadata about yourself as text. I thought about putting my dog's contact info on there so that in case I got lost I could be returned to him.
If you download the NFC Tools app on your Android phone, there's lots of different types of records you can add to the chip's database, which might give you some ideas. For example, a Bitcoin payment link, or even an Android package.
How was it done? Did it hurt? How does it feel? Can you see it?
If you didn't watch the video, it was inserted via a big fat disposable syringe into the piece of skin between my thumb and index finger. There was no anesthesia, and of course it hurt, but really not bad at all, maybe about as much as getting your ears pierced—there aren't many nerve endings in that piece of skin. The procedure lasted about 30 seconds and healed within a day, a huge reason why I opted to go for it—very low risk of complications after the fact.
About 24 hours after the procedure, there was no pain or itching that I can remember. Now, I can't feel it at all, and there's only the tiniest scar. If I push the web of skin out from behind, you can barely see it, but not really. An observer can put their finger on it and feel it, though.
Can it be taken out?
Yes. It's coated in glass specifically with the idea that your body won't bind to it easily, so it can be pushed out via a small incision. Dangerous Things, which is where my chip came from, has an answer to this and more.
Is it safe? Are you worried about cancer?
Well, it's not FDA approved, for one, but that doesn't mean it's inherently unsafe. In my unprofessional opinion the biggest risk is probably the procedure itself, which I wouldn't have undergone unless I felt that everything going down at the time and place where I had mine done was absolutely sterile as could be and done by someone that knew their shit. I should mention, he's a super cool and knowledgeable guy who goes by Cassox, and he's an RN by day.
As for cancer, we have radio waves passing through us all the time, whether or not you have a chip in you, so I don't see how it's really any different than carrying around a cell phone on your person around the clock, as many of us do. Read up on non-ionizing radiation, if you care to—the biological effects aren't 100% clear but ultimately I don't feel like I'm putting myself at a substantially greater risk than anyone else.
It's worth noting that older reports circulating in 2007 pointed to a study that these sorts of chips might have induced tumors in some lab mice and rats. I plan on probably taking mine out at some point in my life. If you get any sort of experimental implant, you should always go into the process with careful consideration about removal, because it is likely you will need to remove it at some point.
Now, breakage is a legitimate concern, but again, if you read the FAQ I've linked to a couple times, your skin makes a pretty good insulator around the glass.
What if you have to get an MRI?
Dangerous Things's FAQ claims it should be ok. Be sure to tell the technician conducting your MRI about any implants or similar body modifications you may have that involve foreign objects, and maybe ask about it in advance.
What about going through security scanners at the airport?
As an air travel passenger I crossed international borders with it a couple times in 2016, and it was a non-issue.
Aren't you paranoid about being spied on, hacked, tracked by aliens or whatever?
I hate to break it to you, but all of us are already being spied on constantly. With this implant, however, it's not like there's an operating system in there to exploit. People sometimes mistakenly believe that it's somehow equipped with GPS, but it's not. The thing doesn't have the inherent capability to monitor my physical location.
As for being hacked—well, to be honest, kind of, actually. Currently my NFC chip is readable and writeable. It is also possible to make it read only, but once that happens it's a permanent change. Someone could technically overwrite my chip and lock me out. If you use Dangerous Things's NFC app you can password-protect your chip for writing, but with the right knowledge and enough determination, I'm sure it's hackable.
But let's talk possibility vs probability: a hacker would have to be standing close enough to me with an NFC writer for long enough. With a big enough power transformer, it's true that it could happen from several dozen feet away. But the likelihood seems pretty small—most writers are only going to work from an inch or two away, and even then, knowing how finicky it is with the Android phones I've used, it may take several attempts to get it to work. Anyway, because I'm super paranoid (but also mostly just for fun), I made myself a Faraday cage glove out of silver-coated fabric.
What was this event you went to?
I could probably write a whole article just on the event, which was organized by the biohack.me forum. It was the meetup of a group of biohackers—or grinders, as they're sometimes called—from all over the country hanging out, getting implants, experimenting, and talking about stuff.
The attendees came from a wide variety of backgrounds—a cluster of us were programmers, but the rest did other random things. Interestingly, there weren't too many people in medical professions. (Side note to the doctors out there: biohackers would love to be your friend!) Anyone at the event without at least one implant was definitely the slim minority, and lots of people were there to add to their collection.
I met people with LEDs under their skin, mostly for experimental and aesthetic purposes. There were people with magnets in various body parts, ranging from other parts of the hand, to the tragi (little flaps of skin on your ears). There were discussions of genital magnet implants, though no one there fessed up to having one, and a back-of-the-skull bluetooth implant for listening to audio, too. We discussed and experimented with everything from nootropics to FDA-approved biocompatible resin for casting implants in. Good times!
HEADER PHOTO: Faraday cage glove and fingernail magnet manicure, created at a separate event. Photo: Adam Burgett