Replacing keys with handwavium?


NFC chipI’ve spoken before about my loathing of that 500-year-old technology, the lowly key: How I am so tired of depending on this ancient, easily-defeatable technology to secure my property; about how tired I am of carrying a pocketful of them with me everywhere I go, inevitably putting holes in my back pocket, in order to enter my car, to unlock my home, to give me entrance to my office, to lock up my bike, etc, etc.

The device pictured here proves that now, in the 21st century, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.

The device is a chip with Near-Field Communications (NFC) technology loaded on it.  It can be read by a radio signal, and is capable of transferring data between itself and a transceiver.  Do you own a car that can be opened and started without a key, operated by a radio fob that never even leaves your pocket or purse?  This tiny chip works the same job as that fob.  And because it doesn’t actually need to touch the lock, it can be placed anywhere that puts it in proximity of the lock.

Like under your skin.

chips implanted in hand

Above is an X-ray of two such chips embedded within the flesh of the hand.  (Yes, more and more people are trying this out, right now.)  Remember all those old sci-fi movies and shows, where someone would approach a door, wave their hand, and the door would open for them as if it recognized that hand?  Then someone else would approach, wave their hand, and nothing would happen?  You are looking at a way to be that cool sci-fi guy, opening things and turning things on… with handwavium, of a sort.


Klaatu waving his hand to log into Google+

NFC-embedded chips could be a secure way to access locks without cumbersome keys that can be easily copied, ridding our reliance on locks that can be easily picked.  And a distinct advantage the chip has over a key is that the one chip can be programmed to access many locks securely.  Say… thousands.

It would work much the same as a key fob system: The transmitter and the chip synchronize with each other, and generate a rolling code (a 40-bit code generator, used in standard car key fob systems, creates a number from a trillion possible codes) that each side shares.  The next time they connect, the transmitter will ask the chip for the code, and will only respond if it receives the right code.

Add to the chip the ability to recognize distinct signals from many devices, and only send the appropriate code for that device, and you have a single chip that can open as many locks as you can program into it.

Now let’s think beyond the typical key: The chip could also send unlock signals to electronic devices you own, and passwords for individual pieces of software, websites, credit card authorizations, ATM machines, etc.  If you thought ridding yourself of a few keys might be nice… imagine ditching all of those passwords you’ve memorized (or, more likely, written down somewhere).  It could even be given temporary access to things like hotel rooms or rental vehicles as desired.

And it could include comprehensive personal emergency information that a medical facility could access in the event that you were injured or incapacitated.  A medical team with a scanner would be able to find out about any pre-existing medical conditions, drugs prescribed, allergies, etc, that could mean life or death in an emergency.

Personally speaking, if I could get rid of the keys to my house, car, office, bike lock, gym locker, etc, etc… as well as the passwords to a few-score websites and bank accounts… and emergency medical data just in case… by being able to just wave my hand over a lock or device… hell yes, sign me up.  And I’ll bet the farm that I won’t be the only one to say “yes” to such a convenience.

At this point, I can naturally hear all of the security paranoids and conspiracy theorists, screaming that this only provides another way for “The Man/Big Brother/The Gubmint” to keep track of your every move.  My considered response to this concern is:


Person of InterestFirst of all, I’ll point out that “The Man/Big Brother/The Gubmint” and corporate, retail and just plain nosy organizations besides can already keep track of you, every time you use a cellphone, pay a transaction with plastic, log into a site or network on your computer, step in and out of offices and stores, and even walk down the street.  If that’s really what you’re concerned about… that ship’s already sailed, Winston.

(We’ll bypass the fact that just because they can watch you, doesn’t mean you’re important enough to the understaffed and overtaxed “The Man/Big Brother/The Gubmint” for them to be bothered with watching you.  And they call me paranoid…)

And second, the point behind the chip is that it is not designed to transmit its signal for more than a few inches, or even less; meaning you will need either very close proximity, or even actual contact, to use it.  And it’s not designed to give up its information to any transmitter that doesn’t possess the recognized request signal AND the proper 40-bit trillion-possibilities code.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson: Chipped before it was cool.

But if you’re really worried, I suppose you could block any radio signals until you’re ready to send/receive them, by wearing an RFID-blocking fabric over the chip.  Stainless steel threads are often sewn into wallets to protect the credit cards and passports therein; they can also be sewn into sleeves, gloves, wristbands, etc, as needed.  Keep it on over the chip until you want it to be detectable, then pull it back, unlock your lock, and slide it back on.  (Well, well… who knew Michael Jackson was an early adopter?)

And you’d probably need a way to verify the chip was owned by the user, and not (ugh) cut out of one person and embedded into another.  Maybe the chip would be designed to stop responding in the event of tissue trauma (a significant change in surrounding body signals, heat or conductance caused by removal of the chip) and require specific biometric data to be input to unlock it.

I foresee a future world of RFID locks embedded into all kinds of hard lock systems, computers, ATMs, personal devices, almost everything large enough to hold a battery (or even a solar cell) and a non-volatile memory.  The chips would be implanted under the skin, probably in your hand, wrist or forearm—feel free to be kinky about where you put yours, but sooner or later grammy’s gonna know you’re opening doors by twerking, and the fallout’s on you.

Users would be synchronized with the locks either when buying them/introduced to them (using equipment at the lock’s location or controlled by the retailer) or remotely, possibly through a cellphone or computer connection.  The user could also provide some biometric data to provide extra security at the time of synchronization, or even in daily use.  Instead of having spare keys made (for relatives, the babysitter, etc), you would bring the person in and synchronize them with your lock through a master control system that only you as the owner, or maybe a locksmith, could use.  Specialized software and hardware on your computer would allow you to set up password-transmitting signals between you, your computer and any and all websites and applications you use, so you wouldn’t have to memorize passwords at all.

You would then go about your day, and appropriate locks would open in your proximity, or possibly when you brush against them.  Appropriate computers would log you in, and applications and websites would let you right in, because the chip provides the password for you.  If you aren’t set up for a lock, or a website, it’s not opening.  Period.  Some might wear an RFID sleeve over the chip for extra security, and remove it only when they want to use the chip.

And the world would not only be free of slabs of shaped metal bulking up everyone’s pockets: The world would be a more secure place, an easier world to navigate, a world unencumbered by collections of easily-guessed or easily-forgotten passwords.  A world where you are your key and your password.

And the physical key would finally, deservedly, be equated with quaint old technology, romantically revered by modern society, like… quill pens.  And sextants.  And fire.

3 thoughts on “Replacing keys with handwavium?

  1. Boy: Not a lot of love for this article. Are people really saying, “Gah, Big Brother is under my skin and eavesdropping on me while I sleep! I’d much rather carry 8 keys and a car fob in my pocket and keep track of 69 passwords on a folded-up slip of paper in my wallet, where it’s safe with my credit cards”?

    Yeah, I realize it’s a lot to take in at first. So were cellphones. So were transistors. So was radio. But think about how transformative they were. Imagine modern life without them.


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