- Catherine Latham
- BBC News business reporter
Patrick Paumen, a 37-year-old Dutchman, causes a stir every time he pays for something in a store or restaurant.
He does not need to use cash, bank card or mobile phone to pay. Instead, he simply places his left hand near the card reader and payment is made.
“The cashiers’ reactions are priceless,” says Paumen, who works as a security guard.
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He is able to pay using only his hand because in 2019 he had a payment chip injected under his skin.
“The procedure is as painful as pinching the skin,” says Paumen.
It was in 1998 that a microchip was first implanted in a human being, but it has only been in the last decade that this technology has become commercially available.
The Anglo-Polish company Walletmor claims to have become, last year, the first company to sell implantable payment chips.
“The implant can be used to pay for a drink on the beach in Rio, a coffee in New York, a haircut in Paris – or at the local supermarket,” says founder and CEO Wojtek Paprota. “It can be used anywhere contactless payments are accepted.”
Walletmor’s chip, which weighs less than a gram and is barely larger than a grain of rice, consists of a tiny chip and an antenna encased in biopolymer – a naturally occurring material resembling plastic.
Mr Paprota says the chip is completely safe, has been approved by regulatory authorities and works immediately after being implanted. It also does not require any batteries or other sources. The company claims to have sold over 500 chips.
The technology used by Walletmor is near field communication or NFC – the near field payment system of smartphones. Other payment implants are based on radio frequency identification (RFID), which is a technology similar to that commonly found in physical proximity debit and credit cards.
For many of us the thought of having a chip implanted in our body is terrifying, but a 2021 survey of over 4,000 people in the UK and EU found that 51% of them would consider getting implanted.
However, without providing a percentage, the report adds that “hacking and security issues remain a top concern” for respondents.
Paumen says he has none of these concerns.
“Chip implants contain the same type of technology that people use every day, he explains, whether it’s key fobs to unlock doors, public transport cards like the Oyster card [les transports publics de Londres] or bank cards with a contactless payment function.”
“The reading distance is limited by the small antenna coil inside the implant. The implant must be within the electromagnetic field of an RFID reader [ou NFC]. Only when there is a magnetic coupling between the reader and the transponder can the implant be read.”
He adds that he is not afraid that we will find his trace.
“RFID chips are used on pets to identify them when they are lost,” he explains. “But it is not possible to locate them using an RFID chip implant – the missing animal must be physically found. So the whole body is scanned until the RFID chip implant be found and read.”
However, the problem with these chips (and the cause for concern) is whether, in the future, they will not become more and more sophisticated and contain all of a person’s private data. And if this information is secure and if a person can actually be tracked.
Fintech expert Theodora Lau is co-author of the book Beyond Good: How Technology Is Leading A Business Driven Revolution.
According to her, the implanted payment chips are only “an extension of the Internet of Things”. In other words, it’s a new way to connect and exchange data.
However, while she says many people are open to the idea – as it would make it quicker and easier to pay – the benefits must be weighed against the risks. Especially as chips begin to carry more personal information.
“How much are we willing to pay for convenience?” she said. “Where do you draw the line on privacy and security? Who will protect critical infrastructure and the humans within it?”
Nada Kakabadse, professor of politics, governance and ethics at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, is also cautious about the future of more advanced chips.
“Technology has a dark side that can be abused,” she says. “For those who dislike individual freedom, it opens up seductive new visions of control, manipulation and oppression. And who owns the data? Who has access to the data? And is it ethical to mark people how do you mark pets?
The result, she warns, could be “the disempowerment of the greatest number for the benefit of a minority”.
Steven Northam, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Winchester, believes such concerns are unwarranted. In addition to his academic work, he is the founder of the British company BioTeq, which has been manufacturing wireless implanted chips since 2017.
His implants are for people with disabilities who can use the chips to open doors automatically.
“We have daily consultations, he says, and we’ve done over 500 implants in the UK – but covid has meant some reduction in demand.”
“This technology has been used in animals for years,” he argues. “These are very small inert objects. There is no risk.”
In the Netherlands, Paumen describes himself as a “biohacker”, i.e. someone who introduces elements of technology into his body in an attempt to improve its performance. He has 32 implants in total, including chips to open doors and built-in magnets.
“Technology keeps changing, so I keep collecting more,” he says. “My implants enhance my body. I wouldn’t want to live without them,” he says.
“There will always be people who don’t want to modify their bodies. We have to respect that – and they have to respect us as biohackers.”