Wisconsin Company Plans NFC Chip Implant Party

Three Square Market expects about 80 people to have NFC chips inserted between their thumb and forefinger to provide NFC-enabled access control, as well as the ability to select and pay for goods from the company's micro markets.
Published: July 27, 2017

Radio frequency identification chip implants for humans have been a subject of discussion and some controversy for years, with limited pilots conducted in part of Europe and in the United States. More recently, larger deployments of hundreds of individuals, rather than dozens, have taken place across Europe. Now, one company in Wisconsin is taking part in that same effort.

Self-service store (micro market) company Three Square Market (32M) will provide voluntary chip implants for its employees and members of the public this summer that will allow workers to access the firm’s facility and office spaces. Members of the public are banking on future applications using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology that could provide them a variety of benefits that otherwise would require an ID badge.

32M’s Todd Westby

32M is planning an inaugural chip implanting party at its office in River Falls, Wisc., on Aug. 1, using 13.56 MHz NFC microchips compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, from Swedish technology company Biohax International. The company is also using Biohax’s software-development kit (SDK) to manage the data linked to each chip ID, says Todd Westby, 32M’s president. This is the first of what the firm expects to be monthly events to implant the chips in those who want the technology.

Three Square Market was founded in 1997 to provide kiosks and micro markets so that people such as company employees in break rooms can access convenience-style food from shelf and cold-storage units and then be billed accordingly. This serves as an alternative to vending machines, the company explains, with better selection and more fresh food.

32M has offered its products with several payment options throughout the years, including an ID badge with NFC or other wireless technology to identify an individual. In some cases, employees simply pay with a credit card, or with a thumbprint scan.

The company has installed approximately 2,100 micro markets in the United States and 20 other countries around the world since it began offering them four years ago. Westby learned of Biohax’s implant technology about a year ago, which he determined would be more convenient than carrying a credit or ID card.

Biohax was launched in 2013 as a chip implant company by Jowan Österlund, a certified tattoo and body-piercing artist who had an interest in the concept of using NFC technology to make interaction with the digital world easier. The company shares its space with other businesses at the Mindpark Stockholm incubator building, and about 100 employees at the facility have been implanted so that they can use the chip in their hand to access the building and copy machines, among other applications. 32M was installing a micro market at the site, and its staff noticed users tapping their hands next to readers to access the copy machines. The result was the collaboration with BioHax for the 32M microchip implantation.

Österlund says the company has implanted the chip in at least 3,000 people to date in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, by injecting the 2-millimeter-wide (0.08-inch-wide) chip into the fleshy part of their hand, between the thumb and forefinger. Biohax provides the microchip—consisting of hardware built by a third-party supplier—and the SDK for users to develop their own apps.

Biohax’s Jowan Österlund

The use cases vary, Österlund says. “Access control is a no-brainer,” he states, though in the long run, he notes that NFC is increasingly being used for payments and electronic business cards, among other applications.

Nearly every implant is inserted in a person’s left hand. The tag can be read through the back of the hand, only when the hand is placed against an NFC reader, including one built into a smartphone. It would be difficult for someone to capture a chip’s unique ID number without permission, Österlund says, because of the close proximity read requirement. He adds that the chip is designed with both public and private storage space. The private information, such as the unique ID, could be encrypted, while the public section could store a business card. Users could employ an app to set limitations on how the content is made accessible. For instance, they could program it to only respond to an NFC interrogation at certain times or on particular days.

32M plans to offer this solution to those who want to include chip embedding for users of its micro markets as well. But as far as Westby is concerned, that kind of automated payment at a micro market, along with access control, are just the tip of the iceberg. “Our goal is to bring attention to the convenience that a microchip can provide,” he says, adding “People are getting chipped to make life easier.” Westby is one of approximately 80 workers who expect to be chipped on Aug. 1.

In the future, Westby expects that the technology would allow people to access public transportation, pay for merchandise or services, and link payments to a system such as Google Wallet, Apple Pay or Venmo.

The 32M chips will be implanted by individuals with licenses for tattoo or body piercing. BioHax trains them to provide this service. The chip, about the size of a grain of rice, is inserted in a syringe, which is then injected into the flesh of a person’s hand.

The chip can be felt in the hand, Westby says, but over time, the tissue surrounding the chip will make it difficult to feel. However, the chip transmits to 13.56 MHz readers, compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, within a few centimeters—even years after it being injected. Since the chip is passive, there is no battery involved that would require replacement. If a user wanted to remove the chip, it could be pushed out through the skin, similar to how a splinter might be removed—by pricking the skin with a needle.

Westby says not only some of the company’s employees, but also some family members and friends, are volunteering to be chipped, simply for the convenience, or in anticipation of a greater NFC rollout in the future. The convenience eliminates the need for an ID card or credit card, Westby says, adding, “You don’t have to worry about it being stolen.” Company employees will be able to use the chip immediately for access control, as well as for access and payment of food at the company’s micro market. The firm expects to hold similar chipping parties every month, and additional employees and individuals in the public have expressed an interest in attending.

In the meantime, Österlund says, Biohax expects to see considerable growth in the coming years in Europe, based on the proliferation of NFC systems. For instance, he notes, Sweden will require retailers to provide contactless payment options at all points of sale next year. Both Westby and Österlund indicate that those who understand the technology don’t raise questions about privacy or security risks related to the chip implants.