Implants vs. Wearable devices

Printed Electronic Tattoo (Wired)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it is that implanted tracking devices have never really taken off in humans. Just a few years ago, there were all kinds of people laying out rather teleological versions of technological trajectories that led inevitably to mass human implanantation – and not just the US Christian right, who saw RFID as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.

I think there are many reasons, including negative public reaction (implants really are a step too far, even for the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ crowd) and the fact that a lot of the promotion of human RFID implants was actually the PR work of one very loud company (Verichip) and did not actually have a lot of basis in either social reality or market research. But the other major reason is to do with other technological developments, particularly in wearable computing and sensor networks. In most cases, implants solve a problem that doesn’t exist (the idea that people want to remove a tracking device that might be there for very good – although I am not saying, indisputably good – reasons, usually medical ones). And where there are no good reasons, there’s probably no case for tracking at all.

So devices like this – temporary, printed or stick-on and removable – are far more what is likely to become the solution to any actual problem of tracking or monitoring for medical reasons. And the relative ease with which it can be removed by the wearer does at least mean that there is some room for negotiation and consent at more than just one point in the process. Of course, such removable, wearable tracking are still not somehow free of ethical and political considerations – and some may argue that the very appearance of consent actually hints at the generation of a greater conformity and self-surveillance, but the issues are of a slightly different nature to those raised by implanted devices.

Eye See You

An interesting health story carried by the BBC today made me think, as usual, of the other possible surveillance implications. The story is about a new implant that has been developed to aid people with certain kinds of visual disorders. Effectively a digital processor deals with signals passing into the eye and communicates with the brain. This may indeed be a breakthrough for those people, but what it also made me think is how this might be adapted to turn a person into a covert ‘walking camera’: the unit is powered by a battery worn externally by the ear, and this could look like a hearing aid or a music player etc. The wireless connection required to send these internal signals elsewhere is (relatively speaking) no big deal…

This would be a step beyond (or away from) the open and visible eye-cameras employed by Eyetap’s Steve Mann or more recently Rob Spence, who lost an eye and replaced it with an eyeball camera.