by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 30
June 2022
Spotted
08:47

The danger of digital tattoos

This innovation could allow governments to surveil us at all times
by Peter Franklin
Digital tattoos could be put to more sinister uses

Was the Covid vaccine used to inject us with microchips? Obviously not.

However, the idea that medical implants could be used for surveillance purposes isn’t so crazy. The best-known examples are the microchips subcutaneously injected into our pets. Strictly speaking, that’s a veterinary procedure, but the same technology can be used on humans. 

So far, governments have held back from chipping their populations en masse. Even dictators realise just how unpopular this would be. Though we tolerate state surveillance in many forms, we draw the line at the state machine literally leaving a part of itself inside us. 

A CCTV camera may be intrusive, but physically it remains outside the human body. But what if there was a technology that fudged the distinction between in and out? The monitoring of mobile phones comes close to this grey zone, but there’s another kind of device that comes a whole lot closer.

The electronic or digital tattoo is a super-thin skin patch that incorporates tiny electrodes capable of gathering medical information. It sounds like science fiction, but the technology already exists. 

In an article for IEEE Spectrum, Prachi Patel reports on the development of one such device. Physically, it takes the form of one or two layers of graphene grown on copper foil and coated with acrylic. It is thin enough to stick to human skin without adhesive. 

By generating and recording tiny electric currents, it enables the researcher to derive a blood pressure reading from the patient it’s attached to. At the moment, the data can only be read by attaching wires, but the plan is for the next generation of the device to be wireless. Given that the wearer can’t even feel the tattoo, he or she is unencumbered by it. Patients are able to move around normally despite the continuous monitoring of their blood pressure.

And yet, despite the beneficial applications, we need to be aware that digital tattoos could be put to more sinister uses. For instance, imagine a tattoo that could measure skin temperature and another that could detect the vibration caused by a persistent cough. Together, they could signal a diagnosis of respiratory infection. Rolled-out across an entire population, such devices could allow potentially infected individuals to be identified in real time — and swiftly located. 

From that point it would be up to the authorities to decide what to do with them. A trip to a testing centre might be required — followed by self-isolation or confinement within a dedicated quarantine facility. Non-compliant tattoo wearers could find themselves electronically excluded from public buildings. I’m sure the Chinese government would love it. 

It should be said that digital tattoos wear off after a few days. In that respect, they are hugely less dehumanising than the permanent tattooing of prisoners — as most notoriously practiced by the Nazis. 

On the other hand, it’s the apparently benign nature of these devices that makes their coercive use in a democratic setting all-too-conceivable.

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Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
2 months ago

Yes, as an electrical engineer and long time occasional IEEE Spectrum reader, I am often appalled by the naive enthusiasm so frequently displayed by some organs and members of my profession for such obviously potentially dangerous developments. Last year some time there was a whole article on the hobbyists, researchers and enthusiasts who are already putting chips in themselves for “hassle free” payment!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 months ago

I’d happily give it a go…. on the condition that the chip would be easily removable or neutralisable.
Living without the amount of documentation, cards and passwords that I currently have to put up with would be great.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ian Barton
Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Yes Ian. This is how they will sell your own enslavement to you. Hope the convenience of not having to carry a wallet is worth it.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
2 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Step 1. provide everyone with a convenient chip (it’s already here in your credit/debit card and phone) Think about it.
Step 2. Replace all old transaction terminals so that ONLY the swiping of a card/phone can be used.
Step 3. Spread disinformation about stolen cards/phones being used for fraud and the solution is to attach a chip to your hand.
Step 4. Spread disinformation about the stealing of the chip on the hand and provide a solution : implanted chip or biometric scanning.
Step 5. Remove the need for the card/external chip and you can use the biometric scan/implanted chip only “for your convenience”.
BOOM you are now a slave. Here’s the solution to all of the above :
Have pin number transactions only, no swiping. DUH!

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
2 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

Then there will be Hollywood movies wherein criminals will be chopping off people’s body parts to drain their bank accounts at ATMs. Or for real.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 months ago

Oh great, man-made horrors beyond my comprehension!

Jeremy Sansom
Jeremy Sansom
2 months ago

I suspect we belong to a generation carefully curated and blithely willing to accept almost any new technological contrivance, as we prostrate ourselves before the alter of Scientism. Ultimately we are all destined to carry one of two IDs that will proclaim to whom we owe allegiance. Time is rapidly running out to procure which future we choose to belong to.

Mark Velarde
Mark Velarde
2 months ago

No thanks.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
2 months ago

I see no one has mentioned the Mark of the Beast. Oh, but that is from that fantasy story, the Bible.

Adam Colclough
Adam Colclough
2 months ago

What’s left of the optimistic side of my nature would like to think that even humans with our lemming like desire to rush over cliff edges wouldn’t go this far down the road of no return.

The cynical devil on the other shoulder though keeps prodding me with his trident and saying if the chancers currently in Downing Street thought it might work and they could get away with it, they might not be able to resist giving it a go.

As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago

and, no doubt some digital technology that Big Brother could use to monitor climate change denial ” hefennsyfe and hinny propyte” comment, homophobia, islamaphobia, and ” extreme right” politics?… Boris’s StasiTories will love it…

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
2 months ago

They’re not going to let the tattoos be temporary. They’re going to commoditize you and route every dime they pay you back into the company store. You will own nothing and be happy. Your life and livelihood will be an endless series of subscriptions, with no way to shut off the auto-billing.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
2 months ago

Under the US Constitution, at least, that would be a clear violation of the expectation of privacy.

Curious Person
Curious Person
2 months ago
Reply to  E. L. Herndon

Actually, there are significant questions about whether the Constitution guarantees a right or expectaton of privacy. So, I would not put a whole lot of betting money on the expectation that the US Supreme Court would protect you on this.