Sunday 23 July 2017


A couple of days ago, I became a [very slightly] augmented human - I had an RFID transponder chip implanted into my left hand. What this broadly means is that I can now control compatible devices by touching them, and more importantly I can now store a small amount of data in my hand.

It's been a really interesting experience so far, and one that people are absolutely full of questions about, and so I thought it would make sense to put a blog post up with the (quite literally) gory details in, along with some insights on what the procedure was like, how it's gone so far, and what my future plans are.

Squeamish readers, look away now. This post contains images of large needles going into flesh, and some blood. Nothing hugely gross, but fair warning.

So I guess firstly, why on earth would I have a foreign body jammed into my squishy flesh? I suppose to start with (or at least to add some context), I'm definitely on the overlap when you draw a Venn diagram of people well versed in body modification, and people interested in pushing technology into interesting new places. I've had bigger needles stuck in stranger places, and let's leave it at that.

Of course that's not justification in and of itself, and so I guess the first reason is a conceptual one: there's something intensely appealing to me about being able to say my hand has slightly enhanced abilities now. Of course, it's a very very minor thing my hand does extra, but speaking both as an artist and as an intensely curious weirdo, I feel like in some small way I've crossed over into new territory in terms of what I can do, represent, and explore. Tiny thing, figuratively and literally, but important to me in a few ways. 

The second reason is more the thing that made me do it now, rather than later, which is that this implant now forms a core element of a new arts commission and related series of exploratory works. Unfortunately, this thing is under wraps right now, and I'm not able to say too much about it. What I can say though is, the work centres around encryption and privacy, and I'll be using the implant to act as the final piece of a series of highly encrypted messages. Once the project is announced, I'll be able to say more. 

what exactly is in your hand?
So, the chip itself is an xNT NFC tag from Dangerous Things, who've really been the originators and catalysts for innovation in this space, most notably via a crowdfunding push a while ago and a lot of work around it above and beyond just knocking out the chips. I highly recommend the TED talk that Amal Graafstra delivered, which outlines everything. 

The chip is 12mm long by about 2mm in diameter (pictured above with a coin for scale). It's a smooth bioglass enclosure, and came ready sealed inside an injection assembly, which I'll talk about shortly. 

The chip is fully NFC Type 2 compliant, meaning it works with everything. This makes life a lot easier, and right off the bat I've been able to jam data into it through my phone, and I know I'll be able to control my laptop and few other things.

(EDIT: I realised some people have no idea what the actual interaction looks like - basically the tag is wireless and allows me to read and write information wirelessly to it from my phone or another device. I touch my phone to my hand, and I can see what's stored on the tag. Or, I can set some data to transmit to the tag, then again touch my phone to my hand and write the data. )

The last thing of note for me is that as well as having a unique ID, the chip also has some storage for arbitrary data. Not much, about 860 bytes, but for my purposes this is more than adequate - at least in the short to medium term I'll be using it to store a series of encryption keys, so the space is more than ample for these needs. 

The full specification page for the unit can be found here. The FAQ is particularly interesting, and here's the common questions I've fielded so far:

Q: will you set off airport scanners?
A: No. There's about the same amount of metal in this as a tooth filling. And to be honest I get yanked every time I fly anyway, I'm brown and slightly shifty-looking and usually have a lot of weird stuff in my luggage. 

Q: will you break an MRI machine if they put you in one?
A: No. They're MRI safe. 

Q: can they break?
A: Anything can break, but Dangerous Things put these through some hellish testing and they came out just fine. I don't do anything particularly strenuous with my hands (no cage fighting or rock climbing here), so I guess the only thing would be an accident or something, in which case I'd have bigger things to worry about. They're sturdy. 

Q: how do you get it out?
A: With a scalpel and some tugging, I'd imagine. There's no skirting around the fact that removing an implant is a tad harder than jamming it in, but I don't foresee taking it out unless something goes wrong with it. They're not coated, meaning that while they do migrate a bit, they're also easier to remove if need be. But, they're also rated for a decade of data retention at least, and something like 100,000 writes, so I'm OK for a while. 

OK, small questions over. Here's the big one: 

how did it go in?
Short answer: a big bastard of a needle, and a deep breath. 
Long answer: the implants are available as raw chips, or more commonly they're delivered in a sealed and sterilised injection assembly kit. This was how mine was supplied, or rather the one my piercer had in his possession was the kit type (while we're here, big shout out to my man Luke Iley at Rude Studios for implanting the chip - I wouldn't want to be stabbed in the hand by anyone else). 

Putting the thing in was straightforward and quick. Swab hand, push needle in, root around for the right spot, inject chip, remove needle. 

Want some photos? Alright! The first thing to note is that this thing was going to have to go underneath my tattoos. This wasn't a problem, and it ended up being OK: the implant is sat well underneath the tattooed area, but the entry point (where a small scar will form) wasn't. Here's my old, caveman-style unmodified hand, which holds 0 bytes of data and can't control ANYTHING wirelessly. Honestly why even have a hand?

Here's the wrapped injection assembly:

As with any piercing, the site is swabbed and prepped: 

The needle definitely looked scarier when unwrapped:

The next step was to mark up the location. The dot on the right hand side is where the needle goes in, and the line is the approximate location we wanted the chip to end up. This was more deep into my hand than I originally expected, but actually makes a lot of sense in terms of keeping it out of the way. At the time of writing I think the chip has actually migrated back towards the entry side, but it's surprisingly hard to tell as it's still very slightly swollen. 

The next part is quite obvious: jam the sucker in. I found the actual implantation quite strange: it was super painful, but only for a couple of seconds, and then as soon as the needle was out the pain dropped off completely. This is at odds with a traditional piercing, which I always hated for a few hours afterwards in terms of pain. I suspect this effect is due to the fact that with an implant there's no exit wound: you're not punching out through the other side with this procedure. Anyway, it definitely hurt like a bastard, but was over super quickly. 

The other interesting thing was that it bled like crazy for a few seconds, but stopped right away. This surprised me, again compared to a traditional piercing that just holds because there's metal in it. I guess of course this was due to the fact that this was a straight-up puncture wound rather than an insertion, but did stop quickly. And as I mentioned, once the injection needle was removed it stopped hurting almost completely. A lot of people asked if I could feel the chip going in, and really I couldn't at all. I can still barely feel it really, I have to have a good root around to find it, although it's still a touch swollen. Blood for the blood god: 

And that was it, no drama. Over and done in minutes, wrapped it up, went home. 

what happened afterwards?
On Luke's sage-like advice, I had it covered for 24 hours, and then changed the dressing once and kept it covered for another few hours. At that point I realised it wasn't sore or bleeding or anything, so I took the dressing off, and it's been absolutely fine. Right now it's Sunday evening, and I had it implanted on Friday evening. So, two days healing so far, and yesterday was quite high intensity with the kids in a soft play place, so it's probably been knocked more than it should. Right now the entry point is a little dot of a scab that hurts when I poke it, so I'm not poking it. The implant location is hard to tell precisely as there's a small amount of swelling, but to me it feels like it's moved slightly towards the injection site. I know the chips aren't coated so they can move around a bit, so I expected it to have a wiggle before it settled. No pain or discomfort around the chip itself at all.

have you scanned it? how does this work?
You bet I've scanned it! C'mon. I made my first successful read of it when I got home, firstly using the Dangerous Things app which proofs the unit against overwriting the wrong sectors of the chip (if there's one device you don't want to brick, it's one that needs surgically removing from your hand). From there, I used a standard NFC app to write a plain text "hello, world!" to the chip, and then read it back. 

I had a little panic early on, in that I couldn't scan it at all for a few hours - I tried on the way home. Of course, it was very swollen for a few hours, and had a dressing over the top, so I tried not to sweat it too much. In this respect you have to trust Dangerous Things a bit (hah), as they're not scannable while they're in the injection assembly - this means you can't test them in advance! I'm a trusting sort. 

Anyway, once the dressing was off and the swelling went down, it was plain sailing. I now get a perfect read every time, via my phone. This will be a great party trick in the pub if nothing else. 

Here's my literal "hello world" scan for the first time, which was very VERY satisfying to see working. Data in and out of my hand! 

what about security?
The classic question. Yes, I know RFID/NFC isn't very secure and someone with a reader could steal the data and so on and so on. Thanks for the info, champ. Of course, this is also wholly true of your contactless credit card, car key fob, door entry system, ID card, and anything else that uses this technology. Really, the security comes not from the unit, but in how you work with the data or identification on the chip. 

Put another way, if someone with nefarious intent wanted to clone your contactless credit card, they could do so, but only really do a limited amount of damage. And of course, there's inherent risk and challenge in getting a read anyway, and all that stuff. 

In terms of my implant, there's a few things to really note: firstly, it's in my fucking hand. Utterly non-obvious to anyone, and actually quite difficult to get a read from straight away. 

But, more importantly, while the encryption keys I'm storing on the device are critical and important and are the only way to 'unlock' the work I'm creating, they're also absolutely not the entire key for the crypto system. So, in other words, if you did somehow grab the key, it's completely useless to you without the other key component(s) which are stored in... of course I'm not telling you. The system is secure enough that I could write this component of the crypto system on my forehead, and it's still useless information to anyone - this is a symbolic thing more than anything, although from a cold technical perspective the key is still literally required to work with the artwork. 

Bottom line as ever: if you want to store incriminating or sensitive information in plaintext on a chip, that security issue is on you. (Now please stop sending me articles about RFID security....)

what do your parents/wife/Christians think?
Parents and wife seem bemused and confused. Nerds are super into it and have bombarded me with a billion questions (hence this post) and one talk invitiation. I also offered to go speak to the MCR Futurists, I'd been meaning to go say hello anyway and this is TOTALLY their jam. 

The reason I mention Christians is that a few people informed that there's some rumblings among the devout/bonkers (delete where applicable) that implanted chips signify the mark of the beast. Oh no! 

Mine is in my left hand, so I contravene this guidance slightly, but I do listen to a lot of black metal so I think I'm still in the game. All jokes aside this is genuinely interesting, and there are other groups currently engaged in ethical hand-wringing, but I'll take my chances. This has been a personal step and neither nerd nor religious body have swayed me (and never shall, natch).

EDIT: word spread a bit about this blog post, and this is now my social media experience: 

cool. so what next?
In the very short term, not much. When I get into the studio tomorrow I want to configure my laptop to read the tag, just to prove I can - my XPS has an NFC reader under the touchpad, and Linux is easy to configure for this stuff. Of course this is a happy bonus in terms of functionality, and would never warrant doing the implant just for convenience. I don't think, anyway. 

The bigger plan is this arts commission I'm embarking on - as mentioned, I can't say a ton about it yet. It's a small but super exciting project, and there's hopefully going to be a good body of personal work around it. Broadly I'll be using the chip to store encryption keys and a textual message, and it's this personal data concept that's central to it all. Much more to come on this, but for now: *zipped mouth motion*

I've also been asked a lot on my thoughts on wider adoption, some ethics questions, and that sort of thing. I do have a few thoughts on this already, but this post is more about experience and I'll probably talk more about the wider context at a later date. 

Anyway, there you have it. My hand is very slightly upgraded, and it's been very interesting so far. If I missed anything, throw me a tweet or a comment, and check back in a few weeks to find out about the project I'm putting together for this thing. 

EDIT: obligatory video:



  1. Q: When you do the "zipped mouth motion" does your new chip do anything? Can you get it to mute the telly, or something?

    Good luck with the art Doohickey. Hope it goes well.

  2. don't forget kiddies, get your xNT implants at!

  3. Oh man, I was thinking that if you put that excerpt from Revelations into the chip and have some crazy people scan the chip and that pops up on their phone, you can freak the hell out of them. I'm petty and keep laughing at all the religious fanatics posting on every RFID/NFC video on Youtube about 666 and the mark of the beast.

    Maybe lyrics from Iron Maiden or a Youtube link to it?