Our guest on the latest GeekWire radio show and podcast was Amal Graafstra, who has the distinction of being a “double RFID implantee” — with Radio Frequency ID tags under the skin in each of his hands.
Regular GeekWire readers will remember Amal as our correspondent filing dispatches from the recent ToorCamp event on the Washington coast. We talked with him on the show about how he uses his RFID tags, why he implanted them in the first place and the bigger issues raised by RFID tagging.
After we were done recording the show, he demonstrated a new application that he and his colleagues at Atomic Mobile have developed for one of the tags, using Near Field Communication technology. Here’s the video below.
If you missed the show, or just prefer text, here are edited highlights from the conversation.
Tell the story of how you happened to willingly put RFID chips into your hands:
It was March 2005 and I had a bunch of doctors as clients had an office in the clinic, but they didn’t want the IT guy on the upper floors so they put me in a basement suite. It had no windows, the door was like half submerged under the ground, and you had to walk down these steps into oblivion. It also had a crash-bar type lock that would lock every time the door would close. You’d be bringing in big heavy server gear in and out all day and it seemed ridiculous we were using keys, cut metal that were archaic identification devices. I just wished that the door knew that it was me. So I looked at biometrics and they are kind of clunky, hard to implement, expensive, and not very reliable. I wanted RFID, which is cheap and reliable and quick and easy, but I didn’t want to have to carry around the card. I don’t wear watches or anything like that, I wanted to be able to get in if I was naked in the alley.
So basically I looked at what animals had been getting for years and thought “Well that’s RFID and that’s really just moving the tag from a pants pocket to a skin pocket.” So I started looking around. I knew I didn’t want to get the animal tag because it’s proprietary, and the reader is over-expensive, and they’re not very readily hackable. I looked around and found a type of reader and a family of tags. I then found an actual glass tag form factor, ordered it, and away I went!
So what can you do with RFID tags in your hands, other than open doors?
RFID is Radio Frequency Identification, and its primary purpose is ID or identification. A lot of people think it’s for locating and it just doesn’t work that way. Basically when you boil it down, ID means access control. Every project that I ever wanted to implement or did implement is access control based. I can get into my house (which I do all the time and love it), I can start the motorcycle, get into the car, log into the computer, I have a fire safe that I added RFID to so I can get into there quick. But I’ve heard of people putting together systems based on home automation.
They can turn the lights on?
Actually, it’s funny — that’s the one thing everybody always mentions, lights. It’s never a situation where that’s a great idea, because your thumb works great on the light switch. Why would you want to secure your lights? Anyway, the point is that they could do an automation where the computer would know who it was based on the tag so it would check that person’s email and get all the information pertinent to that person.
So how big are these tags in your hands?
The left hand is a 3mm by 13mm type of cylinder, and the right is 2 by 12.
So they’re are emitting these short wave radio waves?
Sort of. In these frequency ranges it’s more or less 125 kilohertz and 13.56 megahertz are about as high as you can go. They’re passively coupled, which means it’s a magnetic field coupling. Unlike your cell phone or CB radio, it doesn’t emit a transmitted wave. It more or less couples to the magnetic field that the reader is emitting and then it pulls power out of that field and modulates the field. Very low-range type of stuff.
You did this a number of years ago. What are your general feelings now about what you did, and how does this play into your life?
My general feeling is that I accomplished what I wanted to, which is quick, easy access control. It’s what I use every day to get into the back door. When I’m carrying groceries, something like that, it’s a lifesaver. I don’t even think about it. It just works. Sometimes, friends will come over and they’ll see me do it, and they’ll go, woah, wait. What just happened?
What about some of the controversy around RFID? People are suspicious of it, because of the whole idea of identifying things, and then being able to use that for tracking location of objects and livestock … and humans. There’s also the whole notion of putting something into your body that some people think shouldn’t be there. How do you address those issues?
Let’s start with the body sacred. A lot of people have a sense that their body is them, and the skin is a sacred barrier. The soul emanates throughout the body, you’re all-encompassing. Other people view the body as a sport utility vehicle. You’re going to take the body out and rough it up and do what you want with it.
You’re in the latter camp?
I’m leaning in that direction. I’m not into the body mod scene. I don’t have any piercings or tattoos. It’s more utilitarian. I say, that’s fine, you don’t have to do this, obviously. It’s a DIY/hacker type thing to do. In fact, I have people asking me to help them get it done, and I ask them what they’re going to use it for, and they say it’s just a cool thing. Well, maybe that’s not the best choice.
Do you have a sense of how many people have RFID chips in their bodies at this stage?
It’s got to be thousands. I did it in 2005, and sent a couple pictures to a friend. He put them on BoingBoing, and they went on Slashdot and it was just an explosion.
What would happen if you had a conference of these folks? Would there be complete interference amongst everyone?
You know, I actually tried to get something like that together a while back, but at the time it just wasn’t happening. But I did create a Facebook group. Every once in a while I get somebody who joins it, and I send them a message, tell me about your implants? And they tell me, and I let them join.
What’s the craziest story you’ve heard of how people use this?
Well, the use cases are pretty much the same, because it’s boiled down to ID, but the locations and methods of implantation are pretty much all over the board. I had a guy that …
It’s a family show.
No, nothing like that. I haven’t heard any chastity belt applications yet. But this guy had it in between the bones of his ring and middle finger, and then some of them didn’t heal right and I’m like, don’t do that.
What about the whole government conspiracy issue? What about the people who say, clearly you’re putting tags into people so the government can track them, and eventually all of us.
Yeah, the mandated implantation of humanity, right? For people that are concerned about that type of scenario, I say, given the choice between RFID implantation and biometric scanning, I would go for RFID any day because you can totally mess with it. You can take it out, you can obscure it, you can obfuscate it. But biometrics, once you’re enrolled in the system, you’re in. Unless you want to Minority Report your eye out and replace it with another one.
Listen to the show below or directly via this MP3 file.