Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Cyborg Rights & Digital Divides

Courtesy: Ryan O’Shea, 2015

Grindhouse Wetware’s Northstar implanted in a hand with its LEDs lit up. The Northstar is a magnet-activated and LED-equipped subdermal device. The next iteration of Northstar will allow users to control devices by gesture. It will have Bluetooth capabilities and add patterns or color variations to the LED display. Courtesy: Ryan O’Shea, 2015

By Katina Michael

A growing number of people are implanting smart chips into their bodies. What issues do the rise of these “augmented and amplified” people raise?

Imagine a world where keys had become obsolete, and with just a wave of a hand with an embedded proximity chip you could gain entry into your front door, vehicle and workplace assets. What if you could also use your unique ID chip to conduct point-of-sale transactions, thus doing away with cash and the need to carry your mobile phone wallet altogether?

This may sound futuristic, but the technology to make that happen has been around since World War 2. It’s called radio­frequency identification (RFID), but some people today might know it as near-field communications (NFC). RFID doesn’t require direct contact or line-of-sight. Instead, the tag is triggered by an antenna that uses radio frequency waves to transmit a signal. NFC is a short-range wireless connectivity standard that uses magnetic field induction to enable communication between devices when they’re touched together or brought within a few centimetres of each other.

Passive RFID transponder implants have been used in NSW since 1998 to register cats and dogs. In 1999 Australia introduced a system for identifying livestock using a permanent device that remained in the animal for its lifetime. The National Livestock Identification System (NLIS), which was first applied in the beef industry and then extended in 2009 to the sheep and goat industries, was a demonstration of Australia’s commitment to biosecurity and food safety, as well as allowing local farmers to take advantage of modern total farming management practices.

But what about tracking people? Could the great leap between uniquely embedding IDs from animals to people conceivably happen in our lifetime?

Australia was one of the first countries to adopt electronic passports in 2005. These have a contactless circuit chip in the centre page. The ePassport works together with facial recognition technology to check the identity of international arrivals at a SmartGate that would have otherwise been conducted by Australian Border Force officers.

But imagine that ePassport now being inserted into a traveller’s hand or upper arm in the subcutaneous layer of the skin. This was demonstrated earlier this year by Andreas Sjöström, who used his NFC implant to store his airline booking details and board a plane at Stockholm Arlanda Airport.

So is it far-fetched to speak of humans being tagged for traceability, automation, travel, health and insurance? We already have global positioning system technology that allows geolocation to a given longitude and latitude coordinate. Theoretically we could tether up an embedded implant to integrated chipsets in a smartphone or wearable, replacing all the tokens and redundant sensors we carry around with us in the form of plastic cards and associated electronics. Could this be wireless 6G?

It was New Zealanders, in fact, who hosted the first public online forum on RFID implant applications back in 2005. “The Tagged” group was into electromagnetic body modifications and had 1684 members by October 2007 before going offline in February 2008.

In March 2006 Jonathan Oxer became the first Australian to get a surgically implanted RFID implant. He had been preceded by well-known implantees such as bioartist Eduardo Kac (1997), cyberneticist Kevin Warwick of The University of Reading (1998), DIYers Amal Graafstra and Mikey Skylar in (2005), and Gary Retherford of SixSigma Consulting in February 2006.

The body modification movement has also introduced several innovations focused on aesthetics to transform the way they look.These have extended from tattooing and piercing to the use of a variety of implantables for functional purposes.

Implants are not new when we consider medical implantables for heart and cochlear rehabilitative or restorative capacities, or for contraceptive devices or other intrauterine medical devices that suspend or prevent human capacities. But beyond prosthetic or medical devices that are life-sustaining, we are now witnessing the application of non-medical devices in humans. These same devices, which were initially used for military applications and then for use in animals, are now being placed into people for enhancement and control.

Several states across Australia, like South Australia and Tasmania, introduced specific legislation in 2012 to do with body modifications and implantables, most of which focus on age, intimate versus non-intimate body parts, and permissions from guardians for minors to undergo a non-medical procedure. Implantables that have anything to do with therapeutics also need to undergo their own assessment with the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

On 24 August 2016 I was part of a panel that discussed augmentation at the Sydney launch of the computer game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Panellists included Jonathan Oxer (founder and director of Internet Vision Technologies and Freetronics), in addition to locals Meow-Ludo (a member of the Science Party and co-founder of BioFoundry), Skeeves Stevens of FutureSumo, and international guest and entrepreneur Amal Graafstra of DangerousThings.com. Other implantees present included Sydney-based Shanti Korporaal and Melbournian Kayla Heffernan.

The panel drew out some key discussions about the game scenario conflict between the “Augs” – those who have been “augmented” and “amplified” – and the “Naturals” who fight to retain their human rights. The game is set in Prague, and the protagonist is investigating Aug terrorists that have sprung up since the forced separation of mechanically augmented humans and non-Augs.

The panel discussed many topics, from human rights to aug claims; control, autonomy and the power of implantables; cultural and spiritual beliefs; laws and regulations; health implications; and technical matters relating to the types of implantables on the market and their respective capabilities. Following the panel discussion, several demonstrations showed the ability to unlock a safe with an implant, and the ability to turn on a hobby drone using an embedded ID.

The biohacking movement is now adopting implantables for varied uses. What has changed over the past 10 years are the types of implantables being injected into the human body. Whereas implantees used to be content to get an RFID tag implanted, we are increasingly seeing various forms of electronics being embedded in the forearm (as opposed to the webbing between the thumb and forefinger). For example, Grindhouse Wetware’s Circadia device can read biomedical data and transmit it to the internet via Bluetooth, while simple messages from the internet can light up LEDs under the skin.

The larger embedded devices have several advantages over RFID chips: greater storage capacity, faster processing speeds, encryption, and multiapplication functionality. With time, however, biohackers will equally learn of the side-effects of this technology.

While some implantees see a future distinguishing between Augs and Naturals, I certainly see a stratification of implant types based on affordability, demographics, culture and law. A unique ID chip allowing for access to a given app is a very different proposition to a fully-fledged in-body computer that allows complex computational, spatial, health and financial transaction decision-making.

While the body modification subculture is increasing in popularity – one can see this merely by the growing numbers of people wearing permanent markers like tattoos – the chipification of people is still in its nascent stage. Nevertheless DangerousThings.com claims to have sold about 20,000 injectable RFID kits. Increasingly it is not just computer or electronics geeks adopting the technology; it is early adopters of technology in general, and those that have a tendency of intrigue toward the techno–human symbiosis.

There are various reasons for adopting these devices. Of course, the “cool factor” is highly prevalent. For now, at least, if you have an RFID implant beneath your skin you can consider yourself different. The novelty of this adoption is still important.

Additionally, for those who seek to make life easier and more convenient, the focus is on automation as a value proposition. The motivation here is to forego the need to hold physical instrumentation like keys or card tokens.

Finally there are those who wish to go beyond the mundane application of a unique ID, and consider a future of a cashless society built on Bitcoin transactions, cardless transportation and other location-enabled services.

But these are just today’s options, and the future is set to extend to not just sensory-based apps but memory and cognitive enhancements as well as affectual capabilities. While we are some way off in these innovations, it’s not difficult to see that we are set on a trajectory to implant not just into limbs but with more sophisticated electroids into our brains to help regulate neural pathways for optimal living, recollection and creative endeavours.

These kinds of advancements certainly leave us with major challenges to consider.

  • Should citizens bearing implantables for non-medical applications be considered cyborgs? If so, is there such a thing as cyborg rights? And what might these be?
  • Is there a need to distinguish between various types of implantables (e.g. sensory, cognitive and affectual)? Should outward markers identify particular types of implants?
  • What are the health and safety implications of various non-medical implantable devices – both psychological and bodily? Should an able-bodied person be able to request that their legs be amputated so they can adopt blades?
  • Does an individual have an unconditional right to continue to modify their body? Are there any limits to how much someone can be augmented before physical self-harm is identified?
  • Is it legal to augment the body in a given jurisdiction with implantables? Who has the right to perform tech-related augmentations, and on whom and in which market?
  • What are the rights of cyborgs compared with prosthetes and naturals (e.g. during academic examinations, selection for future employment, in sports, and in insurability)?
  • Who bears liabilities for implanted technology that becomes obsolete, requires battery replacement, completely fails, is hacked or is subject to malware or other external remote access?
  • How are cyborgs covered by medical insurance when something goes wrong with their implant?
  • Who owns the actual device that an individual implantee bears? Who has the right over the data collected by it (e.g. identity, location, financial, health)? What privacy provisions are in place to protect the user (informational, locational, bodily, psychological etc.)?
  • What terms and conditions do future implantables come with for their bearers? If cyborgs become the norm, what alternatives will there be for non-augmented people?
  • What roles and responsibilities do professional institutions such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have on the development, supply and installation of cyborg components?

The answers to these questions are complex. For now, at least, the choice of whether or not to get an implant is seemingly with the human. While the biohacking community is marching forward with their self-actualised experimental innovations, a plausible future might well be big business or government rolling out implantables in the guise of customer service and national security, with the underlying function of monitoring and control.


Katina Michael is Associate Dean – International in The University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences.