Cogito ergo digital payment
Implants, butt readers, and mind control

Press to paySomeday the payments industry may rely on thought alone. PayPal founder, serial entrepreneur, and rich dude Elon Musk recently announced that his company Neuralink plans within a year to have a device that allows people to use their minds to work a computer. 

It’s too soon to get excited—many a Musk project has fizzled—but the dream is reality-based. In 2005, Matthew Nagle became a formidable Pong player by means of microelectrodes buried deep in his brain. The hope is to give Nagle, who is paralyzed from the neck down, and people like him greater independence and communication ability through computer use. Neuralink’s technology will likewise insert microelectrodes in the brain. 

Musk didn’t bring up banking specifically, but it’s not much of a leap, especially since (1) Musk has a background in payments and (2) Neuralink aims to connect users to an iPhone app. 

Biometrics as the butt of jokes … and in butts

Biometric technology is showing up in many places and forms. The first phone with a fingerprint scanner was the Pantech GI100. That was in 2004, when the iPhone was still three years away. Other iterations of fingerprint authentication followed, but it was in 2013 that Apple that made it famous by including it on the iPhone 5S.

Screenwriters love to use biometrics to comedic effect. In the 2018 movie The Spy Who Dumped MeAudrey (Mila Kunis) replaces her lipstick with a deceased bad guy’s finger in order to use his phone. I guess it didn’t occur to the writers that once Audrey unlocked the phone, she could have reprogrammed it with her own fingerprints; and that a severed finger isn’t of much use for unlocking a phone anyway.

Sometimes biometric ID begs mockery. Like when Tokyo’s Advanced Institute of Industrial Technology installed 360 sensors in the driver’s seat of a car. This enabled the seat to recognize the car’s owner—I swear I’m not making this up—by the shape of the owner’s rear end. That’s great for vehicles, but I don’t expect to see Butt ID used to authenticate payments anytime soon. I believe the average consumer would sooner revert to cash than sit on a point-of-sale reader.

Swedish fingers at the forefr0nt

But right now in Sweden, people are signing up for a biometric ID device so fast that the country’s main manufacturer is having trouble keeping up with demand. The product is a chip embedded under the skin, usually in a finger. NPR reported,

The chips are designed to speed up users’ daily routines and make their lives more convenient—accessing their homes, offices and gyms is as easy as swiping their hands against digital readers … Around the size of a grain of rice, the chips typically are inserted into the skin just above each user’s thumb, using a syringe similar to that used for giving vaccinations.

And, according to cybersecurity company Kaspersky

Facial recognition is a part of everyday life in Chinese cities, where it’s used for routine purchases, and London is famously dotted with CCTV cameras. Now, New York, Chicago, and Moscow are linking CCTV cameras in their cities to facial recognition databases to help local police fight crime … Facial recognition cameras are already at work in … airports throughout the world, including those in Helsinki, Amsterdam, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Tampa. has noted that Facebook is “… working on a system …

… that will let people type with their brains,” the company said … “Specifically, we have a goal of creating a silent speech system capable of typing 100 words per minute straight from your brain—that’s five times faster than you can type on a smartphone.

Apocalyptic warnings

Hollywood comedies aside, all of the above generate apocalyptic warnings based on everything from finger amputation, to identity theft, to HIPAA violations. Swedes appear not terribly concerned, but citizens of other countries may not take reassurance from knowing that the founder and CEO of Sweden’s leading chip manufacturer Biohax was not trained in medicine or technology—but in body piercing.

Yet it’s not as if developers haven’t anticipated and planned for security concerns. Per NPR,

Osterlund says personal microchips are actually more difficult to hack than many other data sources because they are stored beneath the skin. “Everything is hackable. But the reason to hack them will never be bigger because it’s a microchip. It’s harder for someone to get to, since you put it in you,” he says.

And, per Kasperksy:

… biometric technology still offers very compelling solutions for security, as the systems are convenient and hard to duplicate. They make a good replacement for user names as part of a two-factor authentication strategy that incorporates something you are (biometrics), something you have (like a hardware token) or something you know (like a password). That’s a powerful combination, especially as IoT [Internet of Things] devices proliferate.

And there’s the convenience factor. There’s something to be said for having to carry around only one device—or one finger—to access myriad apps. In Sweden, consumer convenience is driving embedded chips. The rest of the world may not be far behind.

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