RFID and Automatic Identification Focus: Our Weekly Feature Article on Topics of Interest to those Using or Considering RFID or other Auto ID Technologies  
  - May 17, 2010 -  


RFID and Auto ID News: Are RFID Tagged Humans Closer than we Think?

Are Technologist’s Experiments Idle Fun, or Leading Indicator of Coming Big Brother Era?

  SCDigest Editorial Staff  


SCDigest Says:

The couple that RFIDs together stays together, we have heard.

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For more than two decades, there have been concerns about the potential use of auto ID technologies to track humans, ranging from those raising serious concerns to more fringe elements predicting the apocalypse.


In the early days of bar coding in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not uncommon to emerge from one of the then trade shows focused on the technology to find flyers under car wiper blades with a picture of a man with a bar code tattooed on his forehead, with bold headlines about the “mark of the devil” or something similar.


Now, some 2000 humans, and millions of animals, have RFID chips embedded under their skin.


Amal Graafstra is a “technologist” on the US West coast that has taken the plunge – and talked his girlfriend into the procedure as well. He has an RFID chip implanted in each of his hands, allowing him keyless access to his and his girlfriend’s homes, and to automatically turn on electronic devices and who knows what else down the road.


When I open my front door, I don't reach for a key. When I log into my computer, I don't touch my keyboard. When I start my motorcycle, again, no key needed. Instead, I just wave my hand and I'm in business,” Graafstra recently wrote in an article for IEEE’s Spectrum magazine.


What started Graafstra on this strange journey? He says it started in 2005 when he was managing computer servers for medical facilities around Seattle, a job which required him to  carry ring of keys to almost 100 different doors and drawers.

“That bulky key ring got me thinking. It struck me that modern keys are just crude identification devices, little changed in centuries,’ Graafstra says. “Even if each lock were unique—most aren’t—keys can be copied in any hardware store and, once distributed, are hard to control.”

What best to solve this or related problems? Graafstra consider biometrics, such as fingerprints or retinal scans, but found the technology unreliable or too expensive.

That turns his attention to RFID, where he learned that some 20 million RFID rags had already been implanted in dogs, cats and other domestic animals for tracking and identification purpose, not including the millions more used with livestock (usually not implanted). Graafstra did not want to use one of these pet tags, though they were designed for implantation, because they require registration with some type of central database.


(RFID and Automatic Identification Article - Continued Below)




It took a while, but Graafstra eventually found a glass encased, passive UHF tag about the size of a grain of rice (from Philips) that, while not approved for implantation, seemed like a potentially good fit. It had advanced encryption, for example, one of Graafstra’s important criteria. He even experimented with a few light hammer hits to test the transponder’s ruggedness, and found it took quite a wallop to shatter the tag.

Not long after, after signing a waiver, he found a doctor who was willing to first sterilize the tags, make incisions, and put the transponders in each of Graafstra’s hands, as X-Ray photos show below. After the small incision, the tag is implanted using s syringe loaded with the chip.

Of course, to solve the original lock problem, there is no need to have RFID tags embedded under the skin, Key fobs, ID cads or similar media are already in widespread use for security type applications.

However, Graastra says,” if the tag is implanted in your body, I reasoned, so much the better: it's impossible not to have it when you need it."

Buying a series of relatively low cost UHF readers, soon Graafstra was controlling access to a variety of things around his home by simply waiving on hand or the other in front of a reader. He later installed an RFID access system to allow him to enter his girlfriend’s home in the same manner – which ultimately, if initially reluctantly, led her to have RFID tags implanted in her hands as well. The read range is 5-7 centimeters, he says.

The couple that RFIDs together stays together, we have heard.


VeriChip Already in the Business


It turns out there is already a commercial company focused on human implantable RFID chips for a variety of applications.

VeriChip, offers systems where implanted people can pay for drinks and gain access to VIP rooms in clubs using their implant and other kinds of similar programs. It has some success with the concept in certain areas of the globe, but nothing so far in the US. It also offers implantable chips for medical records purposes, such communicating that an unconscious accident victim has diabetes or a heart condition.

Of course, privacy concerns come in to play, and Graafsta says he received hundreds of often scathing emails accusing him of helping to enable a “Big Brother” society where humans are tracked by the government night and day.

“If such readers proliferate, and there would be many incentives to install them, we would find ourselves in a surveillance society of 24/7 mass tracking,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the speech, privacy and technology program at the American Civil Liberties Union. He adds that “Many people find the idea creepy.”

But Graafstra himself says that his journey with RFID is at least voluntary, whereas in London and soon other cities nearly the entire urban area is under video surveillance – and facial recognition technology is being widely deployed to identify humans as needed.


What’s your reaction to Graafstra’s RFID hands? Is this just a gimmick, or do you think many other may make such a move? Is this a path the Big Brother? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.


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