The Half Life of Body Hacking
An outdated RFID implant is like a regrettable tattoo—you can remove it, but it's going to be bloody.
On October 19, 2013, Tim Cannon got a Circadia 1.0—a sensor that can measure heat and pulse—implanted into his arm. The rectangular box sat there beneath his arm, measuring the temperature of his body, and transmitting that data to his cell phone. The idea is to ultimately develop a device that communicates with a thermostat, controlling the climate of a room based on a person's internal temperature.
Cannon's box wasn't designed as a permanent implant. Based on the stress tests they'd done of the device, his team of bodyhackers at Grindhouse Wetware only planned to have it in for a maximum of 180 days. It lasted 94. Then he had it cut out.
Cannon is one of a growing number of people with tech-motivated implants. Bodyhackers slide magnets beneath their fingertips to feel magnetic fields and slip RFID chips beneath their skin to interact with electronic devices like cell phones.
As the number of walking cyborgs number grows, and as technology advances, more and more people are going to encounter a new question: What do you do with an implant you want removed or replaced? Inserting these devices can be dangerous in the first place, and taking something out of your body isn't something to be taken lightly.
For the first 30 days with his Circadia implant, Cannon says he had panic attacks about the device. It was big, and heavy, and very noticeable—the bruising was dark and deep, and his skin stretched around the box, the size of a deck of cards, that sat beneath the surface.
"The nature of what we were doing was so experimental. The first guy who went down in a submarine felt nervous about it," he told me. "You have to be prepared to have some anxiety about it." But eventually, he got used to it, and even developed a tic that involved the box. In fact, when his team saw the first few pictures of the implant, when the bruising was fresh, they considered removing it immediately. "My team was like, get a scalpel right now and get that out," Cannon says. But it stayed, and largely healed.
He could feel it inside of him, he said. "I developed a nervous habit: Because it had weight to it, I would shake my arm and feel it wiggle back and forth," he said.
This is the first implant of this kind Cannon and his team of engineers, programmers and hackers at Grindhouse has tried, which means that they made a few mistakes. They had placed a part designed to sense magnetic fields near a piece that generated magnetic fields, which caused the device to be on far more than it was designed to be, burning out the battery faster than they expected. Eventually the device stopped charging altogether, and the team cut his arm open and took it out.
Cannon isn't the only person with an implant to suffer from panic attacks. Sander Pleij knows what it's like to live with a metal box under your skin—and to have it get to you. For over two years Pleij had an experimental metal box implanted into his back with wires running up to nerves in his head.
Pleij suffers from cluster headaches, a disorder characterized by groups of severe, often debilitating headaches, and the box was a neurostimulator—a device that could send electrical impulses to the nerves in his head. Some studies suggest that some forms of neurostimulation can help those with cluster headaches.
Using a little controller, Pleij could control the electrical impulse that the box sent through the wires. Doctors sent him home with it and asked him to test it out, see what voltage worked for him. But one day, Pleij says, he snapped, and panic set in. He described the attack in a Medium post earlier this year, writing:
I tried to get up and stopped halfway. Not to the kitchen, not there — the image of a knife flashed through my mind, knife in my skin, in my scar; I would cut myself open with it, rip the technology from my body, if I couldn't control myself… what? No! But the fear doubled: now I was also afraid I would cut the whole thing out of my body. I, I… who of mine was I? What was my body doing to me? What was I up to?
Pleij had had the device in his back for almost two years at that point, but in that moment something changed."I wasn't scared of the thing, that it would do something," he told me. "I was scared of me doing something to the thing."
Pleij waited six months after the panic attack to have the box removed. "I didn't want to get it out only because of the anxiety attack," he says. But the device also wasn't really working to control his headaches anymore, and eventually he decided it was time for it to go. So he returned to the doctor's office and had the box removed. Apparently it was still on when they took it out, even though he thought he had turned it off. "When they got out that little machine it all looked a little bit clumsy, that thing," he says.
For his part, Pleij won't be replacing his implant. "I will do it if first about 500,000 other people have done the same thing and it works with all of them, then I will do it. But this time I won't be the guinea pig again," he says.
The main difference between Pleij and Cannon is that Pleij's device was implanted and removed by medical professionals. Cannon's was not. And for many biohackers, implantation and removal aren't as safe or simple as a doctor's visit.
Samppa Von Cyborg is a body modification artist who specializes in the extreme: split tongues, ears cut and sewn up to look elfin, implants beneath the skin that create patterns and bumps. He also implants chips and magnets.
Von Cyborg says that he sees a few people every month who want to remove or upgrade implants. When I asked him why people get things removed, he ran through a whole list: difficulty getting a job, a failure for the implant to heal properly, wanting to upgrade to something better. "For example, horns, really visible implants, if people got them done when they were young and then it's affecting their life, they can't find a job or something like that," he says.
An interview with Von Cyborg about his more visible work.
Biohacking-style implants like magnets and RFID chips are rarely visible to the naked eye, so people generally aren't coming in to get them removed for aesthetic purposes. Sometimes the devices get in the way though. Cannon told me about meeting one woman who removed her finger magnets because they were making it more difficult for her to play guitar. Von Cyborg recently removed a magnet in the palm of someone's hand because it triggered the magnetic switchboard on her laptop that tells the computer when it's closed, so the laptop kept going to sleep while she was using it.
And Von Cyborg says that people do sometimes come in to have their implants upgraded or replaced. Take magnets, for example. "People upgrade them because the most common magnetic implants are pretty weak, people can hardly pick up paper clips," he says. "I've been taking these kinds out quite a bit and replacing them with a stronger magnet."
But Von Cyborg doesn't swap implants out like you might change a car part. He never puts the magnet back in the place it came from. The body forms a capsule of scar tissue around each implant, and if the replacement isn't the exact same size as the one that was removed, it can cause problems. "The new implant wouldn't encapsulate properly, or when it does it's attached to this old scar tissue under the skin and causing a way bigger scarring inside than it should have," Von Cyborg says.
RFID chips, on the other hand, are so small that people rarely have them removed. They simply implant another, more up to date version in another place. Von Cyborg himself recently gave himself a new RFID chip, which sits alongside the one he got in 2005. "I haven't removed it because it doesn't cause problems, I just upgraded and now I can use my microchip way more than this old school one, because the old school one doesn't work with the mobile phones," he says.
One other reason Von Cyborg sees people in to remove an implant is if it wasn't implanted correctly in the first place. "The other reason is if the implant is done badly or like, you know, that it didn't sew up properly," he told me.
In fact, both Von Cyborg and Cannon say that generally replacing parts should be done with caution. Cannon points out that for many people, upgrading isn't quite as simple as waltzing into a doctor's office or even tattoo parlor.
"When you say upgrade, it means you'll have to go to some guy named Dr. Evil and get cut open twice or three times, with no anesthetic," Cannon says. He wishes there were a more mainstream way to get implants added and removed, but doctors aren't willing to do this kind of work.
And here is where Von Cyborg and Cannon diverge. While Cannon works exclusively on biohacking projects, not all of Von Cyborgs work is in things like magnets and RFID chips. He is a body modification artist, not a biohacker. To those outside the world of body manipulation, this distinction might seem trivial. But, according to Von Cyborg, it's important. He's not exactly a fan of biohackers.
"These biohacking people, they… obviously, there's a big clash between us," Von Cyborg says. "Because they, they're posting on YouTube what they do, they're showing implants at home. They don't know how to do it, so they're spreading their own mistakes across the internet and more and more idiots go and do something at home."
Body modification artists, he says, at least get some training in tattooing and piercing. They know about implant grade materials and sterile technique. Many biohackers, on the other hand, don't have that training, says von Cyborg. While some people go to tattoo artists to get their implants, some don't, they simply follow the instructions online.
"I guess that's what happens when you're a living Frankenstein."
"Probably in their community there are a lot of people who have to take the implants out and swap them because they haven't been done correctly in the first place," Von Cyborg says. "I understand these biohacking people's ideology, to share information, but when it comes to something like cutting someone's body open, skin open, and putting some foreign objects under the skin, then it should be done by professional people, not just people at home."
Cannon disagrees, of course. He believes that it's important to get information out to people who might be interested—and not just the basics, but detailed information so that they can do things as safely as possible. Not all biohackers agree. Some dislike it when hackers make their plans public.
For Cannon, the spread of information is the most important thing. But he also admits that this is all a grand experiment, and that there will be mistakes. "Our goal is to create the space of knowledge for the public who want to enhance themselves one day," he says. "There's no plan to make anything perfect because we're not trying to cure people. You just have to know the risks and the gambles that aren't worth taking."
Cannon says that he won't be putting anything back on top of his Circadia spot.
"I probably have a small amount of nerve damage, where they sewed up the corner, which wasn't the shape that it was when the cut was made," he says. "I can't quite explain it, you know when you touch the inside of your bellybutton you feel it all through you? It feels like that on my arm when I touch that part of the scar. I don't know if that's nerve damage, or someone wired the wrong shit together or what. I guess that's what happens when you're a living Frankenstein."