Can implanted RFID chips replace ID cards?

July 6th, 2017, Published in Articles: EngineerIT



Typical human RFID implants [Source:]

Over the past few months stories have been circulating in the USA that by the end of this year every American will be identified by a RFID (radio-frequency identification) implant – a small chip and an antenna that is planted under the skin in the space between the thumb and index finger. These chips can typically carry up to 2000 bytes of data. The story was first carried on NBC but soon went viral. As we live in a world where fake news is fashionable, the statement most likely falls in that category. However to implant a RFID chip in humans is today practically possible. Last year students working in one of the development laboratories at Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein experimented with the idea and planted RFID chips in each other’s hands.

Rose Eveleth, an American journalist wrote on a popular science website ( in 2016: “A few months ago, in the expo-hall of the Austin Convention Centre, I laid my left hand flat on a sheet of sterile paper and let a very tall, friendly man insert an RFID chip into the space between my thumb and index finger. “Oh, you’ve got thick skin,” he said, pressing the needle a little harder. I made a half-hearted joke about being a woman on the internet, and the whole thing was over.

“Today, the tiny scab has healed, and the device sits just below the surface of my skin, where it looks like a little pill poking up out of my hand. Often, when I tell people I have an RFID chip, they react with confusion and a tiny drop of horror. “You have a what? Why?” Then they want to touch the little bead through my skin — if I squeeze my thumb and pinky finger together you can see the bulge and feel its hard exterior. What they’re touching is a passive, near-field communication (NFC) chip encased in glass. It’s likely that you’ve used a chip like this recently, if you’ve had to tap a fob to a keycard reader at your office, or if you’ve held your phone near a card reader to pay for something. If you have a pet with a microchip, you’re living with an animal that has the same technology that’s in my hand.”

RFID chips designed for human implantation are sold online by a company called Dangerous Things. They sell four different implantable transponders. Its founder, Amal Graafstra, is the man who implanted Eveleth’s RFID chip. The company has sold several thousand of these implants to bodyhackers all over the world, who use them for everything from opening the doors to their homes and offices, to unlocking their cars, to fun projects like auto-displaying GIFs on a phone or marking a geocache. The chip can also store information and (if a chip reader is placed really close to it) transmit that data.

The misconception of RFID

The story of replacing personal IDs with a RFID chip is perhaps more a case of focussing on the endless application of these devices. With the world turning to IoT and Industry 4.0, RFID chips will be finding their way into every facet of manufacturing, control and measurement systems, and will lose their reputation as a device used in packaging and storage.

The most significant advantage of RFID chips is that the device does not need to be positioned precisely relative to a scanner, but will work within a few metres (up to 7 m for high-frequency devices) of the scanner. For example, one could just put all of your groceries or purchases in a bag, and set the bag on the scanner. It would be able to query all of the RFID devices and total your purchase immediately.

RFID technology has been available for more than fifty years. It has only been recently that the ability to manufacture the RFID devices has fallen to the point where they can be used as a “throwaway” inventory or control device.

One reason that it has taken so long for RFID to come into common use is the lack of standards in the industry. Most companies invested in RFID technology only use the tags to track items within their control; many of the benefits of RFID come when items are tracked from company to company or from country to country.

RFID tracking is today used in manufacturing processes and gives manufacturers an accessible method of improving their processes. Whether people will soon be implanted with ID chips is debatable, but there are already cases where chips are implanted in patients to allow doctors to monitor and control pacemakers and many other life-sustaining devices. But for now RFID will go big time into industrial processes.

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