The cyborgs are here: how to merge digital and biological identities

Deutsche Welle
10 Min Read

Bio implants will soon be able to house our keys, wallets, and our whole lives – all within our own flesh. Maya Shwayder tried one out at the Cebit fair in Hanover.
Do you want to be a cyborg? Come on let’s get chipped! Because what could possibly go wrong if you ask a man to take a large needle and insert a microchip into your hand?

“It’s always a risk to decide to put something in your body,” concedes Amal Graafstra, of Seattle, Washington in the US and the founder of “Dangerous Things,” a start-up dedicated to normalizing bio implants. He said he chose the company’s name because people kept asking him “but isn’t that dangerous?”

“We are putting the power of cryptography and privacy in your hands,” Graafstra tells DW.

Literally in your hands. The procedure that Graafstra and his German partner Stephen Kramer perform is a simple injection into the skin between the thumbs and forefinger. It’s similar to getting a vaccination, and safer, Graafstra said, than getting a piercing.

Since 2005, when Graafstra began exploring bio implant technology, Dangerous Things says it has received zero complaints of breakages under the skin or other adverse side effects.

Further, Graafstra is convinced bio implants and biohacking are the unavoidable way of the very near future. He himself has four chips: one is his right hand, two in his left, and one – the latest prototype – in his left arm.

But why? It’s all about the interplay of security, access and identity, according to Graafstra.

“In a human context, identifying someone means giving them access. Identity is about controlling access,” he said, whether that be access to bank accounts, smartphones, or simply buildings. Implants – and by extension becoming a “cyborg” – are all about merging your biological and digital identity.

The beginning

Back in 2005, Graafstra got really annoyed about his keys. He hated having to carry them everywhere, keeping track of them, and how often he lost them. “The first keys are traced back to, what 700 BC?” Graafstra said (704 BC, to be precise). “It’s a clunky system.”

Graafstra had been exploring radio frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communication (NFC) technologies as an alternative to carry a set of keys in his pocket. It’s the type of technology that allows a door to open when you swipe your work ID against a scanner.

NFC allows two devices that are NFC-enabled to share information with a simple tap. Think of tappable credit cards, or the iPhone 3GS, which allowed users to tap their phones together to trade contact information. In 2015, several carmakers began to talk in earnest about installing NFC chips in cars, replacing the old analogue lock-and-key that so annoys Graafstra.

In 2005 RFID was mostly confined to plastic cards like work IDs. “I didn’t want to have to start also carrying around another thing that just replaced the keys,” Graafstra says.

Graafstra began partnering with doctors and professional piercers to develop implantable RFID chips. He ran a crowdfunding campaign in 2013 that raised $30,000 (27,000 euros), more than three times the amount he had asked for. He estimates Dangerous Things is moving about 20 per day during Cebit this year. All of the signs and posters around Graafstra’s stand at Cebit proudly read “We Are Cyborgs.”

Trying it out

Most people think of cyborgs as humanoid robots, most likely sent by aliens to wipe out humans with lasers. But aside from your average Schwarzenegger flick, biological enhancements have been around for years. Do you wear glasses? Six out of 10 people in the developed world do. Or braces on your teeth? Know someone who’s had laser eye surgery? These are all enhancements that are now deemed acceptable by society.

Many people are still dealing with the “ick factor” when it comes slicing open a hand and inserting a “foreign” piece of technology. To overcome this, two DW reporters underwent the procedure to become certified cyborgs.

After taking the plunge, this reporter can say that no one has taken control of her brain, no one has hacked her bank account or chopped off her hand because of her new cyborgian outfittings.

It’s been 11 years since Graafstra implanted his first chip. And he calls the difference it’s made in his life “subtle but huge.”

“How many times have I not lost my keys in 11 years?” he said. And besides, the more people he inserts with the chips at Cebit, the larger his cyborg army will be when the time comes.

Wait, really?

“No, not really,” he laughed. “But I’m trying to start the rumor that I’m starting a cyborg army.”

What it does

The chip is made of ferrite iron, wrapped in a copper antenna and encased in biocompatible glass. All in all, it involves less metal than a tooth filling. There is no battery or energy source. The chips remain passive under the skin until they come within three millimeters of an RFID or NFC reader.

The chip can instantly be programmed with your business card information, or be used for two-factor sign-in authentication with apps like Google Authenticator. Tap your phone to your hand, and it will generate a one-time password that no one else can access.

“If someone steals or hacks your phone, they won’t be able to get into your personal information and log into any accounts as you,” Graafstra said.

The next chips will have apps, too. Graafstra scans another spot on his arm where he recently inserted a more recent prototype. The scan brings up a bevy of what he calls “microapps” on his phone, ranging from a bitcoin wallet to an email PGP encryptor.

Is it safe? Can it be hacked?

Graafstra admits that regulation of the chips right now is lax, although still stricter than those tags people put in their pets. “This is not a medical device. It has same amount of regulation as a piercing,” he said.

His chips do go through a battery of quality tests, including pressure, heat, toxicity and several tests for sterility and integrity of the glass.

“If they’re designed badly, yes,” they can be hacked, Graafstra said. The chips are meant to interact with the outside world and that means that yes, it’s possible someone else could get into it. But, he emphasized, the chips can’t be armed or hijacked to harm you. And if someone nefarious scans the chip, they’re just going to receive a jumble of numbers.

Since the chips are so small, their trackable range spans from about one millimeter to perhaps a few centimeters. At that distance, it’s unlikely the bad guys will escape your notice.

Into the future, into the brain

And the next step beyond that might be, of course, brain implants.

For those concerned about anyone hacking a chip connected to their brain, don’t forget, Graafstra says, our body and brain are already extremely hackable. “I could spray a pheromone spray right now,” he said, and cause those around him to start feeling attracted to him. Psychological trickery as simple as touching a person or having them gaze a picture long enough can affect their thinking.

“We already hijack all our senses on a daily basis,” Graafstra said. “Our brains are already hackable. Our biology is already hackable. These chips could be safety devices that learn alongside our brains and can learn when something’s wrong with your system.”

Brain implants already exist to a certain extent, they are mostly used to treat neurological diseases like Parkinson’s. But Graafstra envisions devices that would take us beyond quotidian tasks like maintaining memories or manage disease symptoms.

“We’re talking about human augmentation and cognitive augmentation,” he says. “Our brains are due for an upgrade.”

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