Would You Implant a Phone-Readable COVID Passport Microchip in Your Hand?

News outlets across the world recently reported about a Swedish business that markets microelectronics which are planted underneath your skin and used to signal if you have received a COVID-19 vaccine. The idea is that anyone with the right app on their phone will be able to tell if you have been vaccinated, and thus allowed admission to their building or event, by simply waving the phone across your body. The implanted chip uses Near Field Communication (NFC) to pass information to phones or other devices. In the last few weeks you could learn about this supposedly important development from such varied sources as The South China Morning Post, Newsweek, The Daily Mail, Euronews, Fox Business, France 24 and many others. This is how France 24 summarized the story:

At the beginning of December, Sweden enacted new rules requiring individuals to have a passport at all events with more than 100 people. Following that announcement, the number of people who got microchips inserted under their skin rose: around 6,000 people in Sweden have so far had a chip inserted in their hands.

The France 24 account is typical of other news articles that implied not only that the chips are being promoted by Swedish innovators but also that many Swedes are currently volunteering to have them implanted. I am not interested in discussing the technology behind these implants or the risks to society because the underlying story about Swedes adopting these chips is bunk. What interests me is the reason why a garbage puffed-up story about old technology has been mindlessly repeated by so many mainstream news organizations.

This story piqued my interest because, as ideas go, the idea of implanting COVID-19 vaccine passport chips into the human body is probably one of the worst ideas I have ever heard of. Is the stupidity of the idea not obvious to professional journalists? People will keep needing new vaccines, which means the information will keep needing to be updated. As a result, people will either need to repeatedly remove their implants and replace them with new ones, or else the method is as insecure as the association between the chip and the system where the actual vaccine data is stored. Imagine being denied entry to your place of work because somebody did a ‘chip swap’ and linked your medical records to a different chip in somebody else’s hand! So whilst many people will hate the idea of an implanted chip because it requires an invasion of their body and represents an oppressive intrusion on their liberties, it is not even a practical or safe way to maintain and transmit important personal data. You might as well just carry a card which says your vaccine status or else carry a piece of conventional ID and have that associated with an entry in a vaccine database.

There were two aspects of the story that struck me as especially peculiar which should have been latched upon by any journalist applying the merest hint of professional skepticism to their work.

  1. Most of the news articles implied this was some kind of new invention or significant recent advance in technology. However, making a small thing that can sit inside your body and provide data to nearby machines requires no breakthrough. The tech to do that is old. The first patent relating to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Near Field Communication (NFC) dates back to 1983. IEEE began work on standardizing Body Area Networks (BAN) in 2011. The only novelty to the technology covered by this story is the proposed use as a COVID-19 passport.
  2. Many of the stories also suggested that lots of Swedes were volunteering to have the chips implanted. This is implausible because they are Swedish. Though it was not fully appreciated before the pandemic, everyone now knows how much Swedes care about their personal freedoms. Their government did not impose lockdown restrictions like the rest of Europe. Sweden is also the country where the freedom to download copyrighted music launched a political movement and where everybody has the freedom to roam, by which they mean anyone can walk or camp on all privately-owned land apart from homes and farms. If countries were to be ranked by the likelihood of the population implanting chips in their bodies so their actions can be digitally monitored and their movements controlled, then Sweden would be right at the bottom of the list.

I kept reading to find any evidence that 6,000 Swedes really have had chips implanted in their hands. There was remarkably little support for this bold claim. The best evidence came from a story written in 2018 – well before the pandemic. US broadcaster NPR interviewed Jowan Österlund of Biohax International for an article entitled “Thousands Of Swedes Are Inserting Microchips Under Their Skin”. At that time it was claimed “more than 4,000 Swedes have adopted the technology, with one company, Biohax International, dominating the market”. If this assertion was true in 2018 then it casts a shadow over the subsequent claim that 6,000 Swedes now have the chips inserted and that many were motivated to have the implants to show they have been vaccinated. It is also telling that Biohax International is now described as a ‘discontinued’ operation per the Implant Register website, and their website has disappeared, despite their supposed dominance of the Swedish implant market as recently as 2018. Photographs also show that the chips implanted by Biohax International and the apparatus used to implant them are identical to the equipment shown in the recent stories about vaccine passport implants.

As I kept reading through all the mainstream news pieces about the Swedes implanting chips for vaccine passports, I came to a remarkable realization. Between them, the multiple news stories referred to two different Swedish businesses that were said to be promoting the idea. But although there were two companies associated with the idea, there was only one person who said he had a chip implanted. That single individual spoke on behalf of both businesses! To illustrate my point, here are some quotes from different news sources, beginning with The Daily Mail.

Swedish startup Epicenter unveils rice-sized microchip implant that stores your COVID vaccine passport under your skin… In a video shared by Epicenter, Hannes Sjöblad, chief distribution officer, has the chip in his arm and simply waves a smartphone over it to pull up his vaccination status.

This quote is from Euronews.

As COVID-19 continues to rage with the spread of new variants, having your health pass accessible is becoming increasingly essential. But would you be willing to have it actually implanted in your hand?

… “We know that the world of connected devices, the Internet of Things as a lot of people call it, speaks the language of NFC… So when I have a chip in my hand it allows me to speak the language of all these devices and interact with them effortlessly,” said Hannes Sjoblad, Managing Director of DSruptive Subdermals.

And this final quote is from Fox Business.

A microchip technology introduced in recent years by the Stockholm-based startup Epicenter is being presented as a means to store one’s COVID-19 vaccine passport under the skin, according to a video from the South China Post that went viral Friday… The video featured DSruptive CEO Hannes Sjöblad, who was founder of the Swedish Association of Biohackers.

Though hard to believe, the vast majority of news journalists who reported on the use of implanted microchips as COVID vaccine passports did not even clarify that Hannes Sjöblad is both the boss of DSruptive Subdermals and the Chief Disruption Officer of Epicenter, even though he has used both titles when promoting the same idea. Many reporters failed to get even a single one of Sjöblad’s job titles correct. None noticed that Epicenter is not a tech start-up in any normal sense of that phrase. It is actually a building in downtown Stockholm that has rented out office space since at least 2015. The staff at Epicenter Stockholm try to pump up the rates for renting out parts of their building by talking a lot about ‘digital innovation’, ‘community’ and ‘acceleration’ to confuse those customers who do not seem to understand they are essentially paying for old-fashioned floorspace.

To be fair to Sjöblad, when he gave interviews in his role as Chief Disruptive Officer of Epicenter he also said that DSruptive Subdermals is only one of several companies that also sell implanted microchips, though he failed to name any others. And after scouring through the news about Epicenter, DSruptive Subdermals, and their mutual love of embedded chips I did find one other named individual who admitted to having the chip implanted. He actually allowed his chip to be implanted whilst being filmed by reporters working for Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet. This particular marketing stunt appears to be the origin for most of the recent news coverage. The other named person with a chip in their hand is Olle Helkimo, and his job title is Service Manager at Epicenter. Helkimo was obviously willing to have a chip put into his body because it generated free advertising for his building on national news, and is the real reason why so many news outlets reported that his business recently ‘unveiled’ an implant that has already been promoted by other companies for several years.

I do recommend you watch the video showing the procedure for embedding the chip in Olle Helkimo; skip to the 1:50 mark. The reason to watch is because it looks awfully painful. If you think a vaccination needle looks big, check the width of the sharp-edged tube used to pierce well inside Helkimo’s hand. Vaccination means it is safe for you to offer a handshake to Olle, but his implant would mean he would be in far too much pain to accept! The discomfort caused by this procedure would reinforce the strength of the likely revolt against having alien objects forced into the body.

The real story here is that Hannes Sjöblad, like some other self-proclaimed Swedish futurists, has been trying to get his countryfolk excited about implanted microchips for many years. They are not succeeding for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, you cannot expect a man who describes himself as “an internationally recognised thought leader, speaker, media commentator, innovator, investor and professional advisor on biohacking, human augmentation and the impact of exponential technologies on the human condition” to just admit defeat. He has latched on to COVID-19 to rejuvenate his sales pitch. A lot of media companies then took the bait and repeated his story during a period of the year when they are too lazy to do any real journalism. And as they copied from each other, they made more and more mistakes, so that each copy of the story was more exaggerated and further removed from the original, uninteresting facts. The most important of those facts is that a few people manufactured a publicity stunt around the idea that customers would be happy to be implanted with a chip just to gain access to their building even though that business would obviously fail if they genuinely restricted entry to only the few people willing to undergo an unpleasant and largely useless procedure.

I cannot blame Sjöbladt for pursuing the same bad idea he has long pursued, even if he now seeks to capitalize on a pandemic to promote it. And it must have been difficult for Epicenter to rent out expensive office space to people with an interest in technology during a period when everybody wanted to work from home and nobody wanted to attend events. We can sympathize with the reasons they would latch on to a gimmick to promote their businesses, though I doubt anybody who read the story in China or the USA will be enquiring about the cost of renting a meeting room in Stockholm. A very thin story has been repeated to the point of absurdity and cheapened by lazy reporting. If we look at the response on websites that allow comments, it is clear that the main interest in this story comes from people who vehemently oppose Sjöbladt’s sales pitch. The goal of the news businesses who ran this story was not to provide information about a meaningful technological development, but to provoke and upset readers who despise the thought of having a chip embedded in their body just to prove their identity or demonstrate compliance with rules. However, I want to end this media analysis by commenting on one news outlet that did a better-than-average job of presenting the facts behind this story, and what that says about the quality of work done by most tech journalists. This is what LifeSiteNews wrote about Sjöblad and his ideas:

Swedish biohacker promotes implanted microchip COVID passports in your hands

An implanted chip could be accessed from a cell phone to pull up an EU digital COVID certificate.

…Hannes Sjöblad, co-founder of BioNyfiken, a Swedish association of biohackers and “Chief Disruption Officer” at Epicenter Stockholm, demonstrated to Aftonbladet how by simply placing his cell phone against his forearm that he was able to pull up an EU digital COVID certificate on his phone.

Sjöblad, who is double-chipped, told Aftonbladet that microchips can save all kinds of “personal information” ranging from contact information to bodily identifiers such as blood type and health indicators like body temperature. He showed how he was able to get a body temperature reading on his cell phone after he placed it next to his upper chest area, where one of his microchips is located.

The Swedish news outlet also showed Olle Helkimo, who is now service manager at Epicenter Stockholm, getting a chip implanted into his hand at a restaurant table. He remarked that it felt like “nothing at all.”

There is nothing special about this writing, except LifeSiteNews gets the details correct when so many larger and better-resourced news organizations were copying errors from each other. But perhaps LifeSiteNews are more focused on getting their facts straight because they receive more criticism than mainstream news media. The LifeSiteNews article went on to state:

Many Christian commentators have pointed out that if such technology becomes required for access to goods and services, it would usher in totalitarianism of truly biblical proportions.

That is not an unreasonable observation, though you may now be wondering about the religious overtones. The next paragraph reveals all.

The Book of the Apocalypse refers to a “second beast” who “shall make all, both little and great, rich and poor, freemen and bondmen, to have a character in their right hand, or on their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, but he that hath the character, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”

LifeSiteNews editor-in-chief John-Henry Westen has noted that having “some mark which allows buying and selling is not evil in and of itself,” but we should be wary of any strings attached to receiving such a mark that would make “receiving it worthy of eternal damnation.”

The Wikipedia article about LifeSiteNews says the following about them.

LifeSiteNews (or simply LifeSite) is a Canadian Catholic far-right anti-abortion advocacy website and news publication. LifeSiteNews has published misleading information and conspiracy theories, and in 2021, was banned from some social media platforms for spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

I am not going to defend people who may spread misinformation about serious public health matters. But it says something about the quality of news reporting that an outlet banned for spreading misinformation did a better job of verifying and repeating basic facts about this particular story than most mainstream news outlets around the world. The narrative about Swedes volunteering to have chips put inside their bodies to demonstrate their vaccination status was reported and misreported out of all proportion to the significance of a trivial marketing stunt. But the reason this story was reported by so many supposedly reputable news outlets is fundamentally the same as the reason this story will appeal to conspiracy theorists.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.