The danger of digital tattoos
This innovation could allow governments to monitor us at all times
by peter franklin
Digital tattoos could be used for more sinister purposes
Was the Covid vaccine used to inject us with microchips? Obviously not.
However, the idea that medical implants could be used for surveillance purposes is not so crazy. The best-known examples are microchips injected subcutaneously into our pets. Strictly speaking, it’s a veterinary procedure, but the same technology can be used on humans.
Until now, governments have refrained from chipping their populations en masse. Even dictators realize how unpopular that would be. Although we tolerate state surveillance in many forms, we draw the boundaries of the state machine by literally leaving a part of itself inside of us.
A CCTV camera can be intrusive, but physically it remains outside the human body. But what if there was technology that fudged the distinction between inside and outside? Mobile phone monitoring comes close to this gray area, but there is another type of device that comes very close.
The electronics or digital tattoo is an ultra-thin skin patch that incorporates tiny electrodes capable of collecting 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 such a device. Physically, it takes the form of one or two layers of graphene grown on copper foil and coated in acrylic. It is thin enough to stick to human skin without adhesive.
By generating and recording tiny electrical currents, it allows the researcher to obtain a blood pressure reading of the patient it is attached to. At the moment data can only be read by attaching wires, but the plan is for the next generation of the device to be wireless. Since the wearer cannot even feel the tattoo, he is not bothered by it. Patients can move normally despite continuous monitoring of their blood pressure.
And yet, despite the beneficial applications, we should be aware that digital tattoos could be used for more sinister purposes. For example, imagine a tattoo that could measure skin temperature and another that could detect vibrations caused by persistent coughing. Together, they could signal a diagnosis of a respiratory infection. Deployed across the entire population, these devices could make it possible to identify potentially infected people in real time and locate them quickly.
From then on, it would be up to the authorities to decide what to do with them. A trip to a testing center may be required – followed by self-isolation or confinement to a dedicated quarantine facility. Non-compliant tattoo wearers could find themselves electronically barred from public buildings. I’m sure the Chinese government would like that.
It must be said that digital tattoos fade after a few days. In this regard, they are vastly less dehumanizing than the permanent tattooing of prisoners – as most notoriously practiced by the Nazis.
On the other hand, it is the seemingly benign nature of these devices that makes their coercive use in a democratic setting all too conceivable.