Of all the table games at casinos, I’ve always had a preference for blackjack — in particular because if you play disciplined basic strategy and count cards and the casino doesn’t use a card shuffling machine but deals from a 6-deck shoe (plus another bunch of rules which I won’t go into detail with), you can get the odds to within 48.5% in favor of the player — meaning the house has its odds whittled down to 1.5% over a disciplined player.
Mind you, I use the term “disciplined,” not “skilled.” That’s because anybody can be a decent blackjack player with discipline and hard work — which is why so few people do it — beyond a point, it becomes a job. Unfortunately, this particular evening I wasn’t playing in Vegas, or even Reno for that matter, but instead at the glitzy (not) “Integrated Resort” (but really it’s a casino) in Singapore — Marina Bay Sands. At the behest of some guests, I was playing a decent game at the blackjack table, enjoying some casual banter with my guests and some steely eyed ladies of leisure, when my phone buzzed indicating that a small transaction had been placed on my credit card to purchase train tickets at London’s Paddington Station. “Interesting,” I thought, “How did I buy those tickets from almost 7,000 miles away?” In an instant, I knew that my credit card had been compromised, but I wasn’t about to call the credit card company yet as I didn’t want to give up my seat at the blackjack table. Then the second buzz came in, this time for air tickets and judging by the amount, probably first class air tickets as well. What started off as an irritation now took on slightly more urgency. Much to my chagrin, I had to step away from the table, give up my seat and dial in to the concierge to stop the transactions and to cancel my credit card. Needless to say, the evening (which had started off pleasantly) had now taken on a far more different complexion.
“We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t secure our credit card transactions?”
For all the progress made in securing online credit card transactions (dollars to donuts my card was compromised online), the internet was never designed nor structured for the breadth and depth of transactions we’ve subjected it to. We’ve come a long way no doubt, but perhaps we can take things even further.
One of the biggest beefs with Bitcoin, or any other cryptocurrency for that matter is our private keys. Private keys for cryptocurrencies are cumbersome at best. Complex and disingenuous, a private key is just one more clunky password that we’ve got to maintain in a life already cluttered and burdened with passwords. But over in Sweden, the country which interestingly enough also was quick to adopt digital payments and is even considering the issuance of its own state-issued cryptocurrency, advancements in biochipping may change all that.
No, it’s not a scene out of Blade Runner and no, the government won’t be able to track you, injecting chips into humans is not only becoming increasingly possible, it’s also increasingly looking like a practical business application. Imagine never forgetting your keys, having your identity stolen or forgetting your passwords again — that is the possibility that biochipping brings. In November, a report by MarketsandMarkets Research estimated that the global biochip market would be worth about US$17.75 billion by 2020. And biochipping isn’t just limited to passwords, but can be extended to keep us alive as well — from monitoring heart rate, or blood-sugar, to cholesterol. Basically anything that we’re already doing with chips on plastic cards. But before you scream out “Orwellian dystopia!” there is an inevitability around biochipping for no other reason than that we’re terrible at maintaining our own personal and private security and private corporations are no better.
1. Of Data Breaches & Data Mismanagement
Not so long ago, James Howell, was lobbying the Newport City Council in the United Kingdom to allow him to dig up his lost Bitcoin private keys from a landfill, at the time the Bitcoin keys were estimated to have been worth as much as US$127 million. Now had Howell been biochipped with his private keys, that problem wouldn’t have arisen.
And because biochips embedded in one’s body can be located anywhere on the body and emit extremely low power signals, it’s not technically possible to “steal” your keys from you, except maybe on pain of death or torture.
Private companies which store petabytes of our most intimate data in huge data centers spanning the globe can’t be trusted to keep our data safe either. Whether it’s a hacking of Bank of America or Facebook, we’ve handed over our private data to profit-driven companies without so much as even considering the implications of that surrender. Ironically, biochipping, would provide a means by which we could decide what private data we divulge, for what remuneration and to which parties — as opposed to delegating such decisions to the platform providers to make determinations in their own self-interest.
An examination of my wallet today reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld, when George Costanza was trying to squeeze in that one extra item into his painfully engorged wallet. My wallet is jam packed with personal identification, gum memberships, discount cards, credit cars and a slew of other pieces of plastic for which digital alternatives do not exist. And even where the digital alternatives exist, these are jam packed into a phone, for which known security vulnerabilities exist. Then there are the keys which make me feel like a jailer, threatening to stab my most private of parts whenever I wear tight pants. These keys, not much evolved since the Middle Ages, unlock doors, lockers and chests, as they have for millennia. For the legions of biochippers, these antiquated habits are as feeble as they are futile.
But with blockchain technology and the advent of biochipping, the prospect of regaining control over our own data suddenly becomes possible. For starters, a variety of private keys (whose alphanumeric codes we need not put to memory) can be used to unlock selective “doors” in our social media interactions as well as our financial transactions. Furthermore, there are countless blockchain startups trying to push forward remuneration models which would reward users for the data shared on their platforms through the issuance of their own cryptocurrency. Biochipping may help to ensure that that data lives physically with users, as opposed to on centralized servers or even on the blockchain for that matter.
2. A Biochipped Biosphere
As the train conductor comes by on the train out of Stockholm, Sweden, careful observers will note a peculiar phenomenon. On every train, no less than one passenger will be lifting out some part of their body (typically a hand) for the train conductor to use their NFC scanner to scan their train tickets. No, it’s not a scene from Blade Runner, but it could well be. Sweden’s entire national rail network is biochip-capable. So too are the 172 gyms run by Nordic Wellness, where gym members and staff can open the secure turnstiles and lockers with their hands and see their exercise profiles on monitors.
And the near-field-communication devices that could power the proliferation of biochipping are proliferating. Last June, the Car Connectivity Consortium, a grouping which includes some of the world’s largest automakers as well as Apple and Samsung, agreed to a standard digital key system, which will make it possible for drivers to open their car doors and start the engine from an app on their smartphones — which will make Gone in 60 Seconds that much easier for a car thief to turn into a reality. Because if ever there was a good reason to hack a smartphone, a US$60,000 car is as good as any. And while the Consortium didn’t make specific mention of biochipping the data for car keys, it would require almost no extra effort to do so.
But biochips won’t just be good for unlocking your cars, imagine turning up at a doctor’s appointment with all of your medical records literally on you, as opposed to in a dusty file in a doctor’s office which can be lost, destroyed or stolen — or worse, sitting in some drug company’s servers. From fishing for change to withdrawing money at an ATM, there are countless applications for biochipping, which can reduce the “friction” of daily life — moments that divert our conscious thought and hog memory space in our brain, which could be better used writing that next award-winning script or painting that next Picasso.
And biochipping is far from new. As far back as 2004, the Food and Drug Administration approved an implantable chip in Delray Beach, Florida, which aimed to enable people to store their medical records on a chip in their upper arm. Unless the arm was shot off, the device could allow a patient to be rushed unconscious to the hospital with no ID and doctors would immediately be able to scan blood type, medical history and even organ-donor status.
But it’s the potential of pairing biochips with the blockchain that really unlocks limitless possibilities and a decentralized future. NFC devices such as keys can be easily hacked. A recent spate of car thefts in the United Kingdom showed how thieves would scan the signal for the car searching for the NFC-enabled key and then scanning the key’s signal in the bowl of keys in the hallway near the front door — with biochipped blockchain keys, the odds of that happening are close to zero (unless of course you sleep next to your car).
And blockchain technology offers a lot more for biochips. Because even if your credit card information is biochipped into your body, that doesn’t mean it’s safe from hacking — your credit card usage is still monitored by the bank and the details are still stored on centralized servers. Same goes for medical records or any other persona data. But at least insofar as the blockchain is concerned, without the private keys, that information is as far as practicable, unhackable.
3. Biochipping is a Lot More Private Than People Believe
Biochips are inert — unlike your car keys in your wallet which can be hacked by searching the signals when the keys are in your hallway near your car, biochips are not constantly emitting signals. Nor are they like smartphones which are constantly broadcasting information about your whereabouts and activities.
But that hasn’t stopped the media from portraying any sort of biochip as some Orwellian death instrument — either to track you or destroy you. From the Matrix to Johnny Mnemonic, implants have been painted as instruments of subjugation and slavery from artificial intelligence or nefarious masters. Yet in reality, biochips only transmit when extremely close to a reader.
In some respects, biochipping is already widely accepted — just without much of our knowledge. Heart pacemakers are one example of biochips keeping us alive and biochips in pets help us find our best friends.
But more importantly, unlike credit card transactions which leave breadcrumbs wherever we spend money, biochips, which spend cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin won’t leave that same trace. Because a biochip can be reprogrammed regularly with new public/private keys, without the hassle of memorizing the keys or placing them in a cold wallet, our transactions could become more anonymous overnight, except perhaps when we choose to lose that anonymity.
The Bottom Line
Whether or not people will accept biochipping remains to be seen, the scores of dystopian landscapes painted by Hollywood don’t encourage the adoption of biochipping. Yet biochipping has promising applications, especially when coupled with blockchain technology and could provide the fuel for greater cryptocurrency adoption, as well as facilitate the privatization of transactions and the decentralization of data, in particular sensitive and personal data.
Sweden is at the forefront of adopting biochipping and unsurprisingly, is also one of the countries mulling a push into a state-issued cryptocurrency. Sweden was also the birthplace of Skype and Ericsson (one of the world’s first mobile phone companies) and the Swedes have consistently demonstrated their futurist approach. Whether this will catch on with the rest of the world is anyone’s guess, but what we do know is that video calling and mobile phones weren’t just a passing fancy.