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  • Resisting Surveillance:Identity and Implantable Microchips
  • Nancy Nisbet, (artist, educator) (bio)

Surveillance technologies and centralized databases are threatening personal privacy and freedom. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) microchip technology is one of several potential human tracking and authentication systems. The author's interactive art installation Pop! Goes the Weasel aims to explore opportunities for resisting surveillance by altering underlying assumptions concerning identity. Viewers are encouraged to experiment with resistance by avoiding access control, intervening in the database and subverting notions of a stable or single identity. The author is planning a future project to develop an interface between the author's two implanted microchips and her computer in order to track her computer usage as it relates to her technology-induced shifting sense of self.

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Article frontispiece. Photograph of workman's hand, C-print, 11 inches in diameter, 2001. Detail from Pop! Goes the Weasel.

© Nancy Nisbet

[End Page 210]

There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.

—Michel Foucault [1]

Although surveillance of human behavior is not new, technological developments and heightened concern over public security are increasingly facilitating, and arguably justifying, ubiquitous surveillance. Leading contenders in contemporary social surveillance systems include: the establishment of national ID cards, the use of biometric identifiers and, potentially, the implantation of identifying microchips. Perhaps the most serious risk to personal privacy and freedom that any of these systems pose is through the possible development of an involuntary centralized or interconnected database. The implementation, control of access, and restrictions of use of such information repositories have many privacy advocates concerned [2,3]. The trend toward the convergence of diverse databases of collected information in North America and elsewhere recalls Bentham's Panopticon [4] and the specter of coercion that emerges in Foucault's analysis of power and knowledge in a disciplinary society.

My concern with the limits and risks of the explosion of surveillance technologies prompted me to undertake an artistic exploration of a particularly threatening system, that of implanted radio-frequency identification microchips. Pop! Goes the Weasel, an interactive art installation first presented at the Inter-Society for Electronic Art (ISEA) symposium in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2002, is the first of several artworks that I have undertaken to this end.

2001-2002: I have two microchips implanted in my body—one in the back of each hand. The first was injected in October 2001 (Fig. 1) and the second in February 2002 [5].

Radio Frequency Identification Technology

Since the 1980s, Radio Frequency Identification Technology (RFID) [6] has developed to the point that today it is widely used in tracking and access applications. It is a wireless system commonly used for livestock and pet identification as well as automated vehicle identification systems such as toll roads and parking garages. RFID technology has the potential to drastically alter human surveillance. As microchips get smaller and power supply issues [7] are resolved, forms of human surveillance that invade the body will increase. Some human bioengineering research in the United Kingdom already uses implanted RFID technology [8]. In October 2002, the United States Federal Drug Administration's apparent [9] decision that RFID microchips used for nonmedical applications do not need FDA approval for implantation into humans [10] significantly bolstered corporate interest. Applied Digital Solutions, Inc. (ADS) is marketing external [11] human tracking devices such as the wristwatch-like Digital Angel and the internal VeriChip for "a variety of security, financial, emergency identification and healthcare applications" [12].

2001: I approached four surgeons and a veterinarian and asked whether or not they would agree to perform the microchip implantation for artistic research purposes. The vet agreed to supply me with the microchip but refused to inject it into me. One surgeon did not reply to my message. The second declined. The third agreed on condition that the Canadian Medical Association sanctioned the procedure. The fourth simply agreed.

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Fig. 1.

A surgeon implants an RFID microchip into the artist's left hand with a specially designed needle, October 2001.

© Nancy Nisbet

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pp. 210-214
Launched on MUSE
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