I know that ever since my most recent post, you’ve all been on the edge of your seats, so I’ll ease your concerns now: I’ve gotten my second dose. There’s been a lot of talk about how awful the side effects are for the second shot, so when I went in this past Monday, I was ready to get laid out for a couple days. As it turns out, however, being neurotic is no guarantee that things will actually go wrong, and so my plans to write a long-winded rant about how bad it was have been supplanted by a rather tepid “Well, my arm got kind of sore-ish, I guess.”
So to get my complain-y fix, I’ll talk about bullshit conspiracy theories instead. Specifically: the microchips.
Yeah, you know what I mean.
Who hasn’t referred to their vaccine appointment as “getting microchipped” to their family and coworkers? Monsters, that’s who. But the truth is that this anti-vax garbage is both dangerous and frustrating (hence the “people are stupid” line in my previous post, which is an unhelpfully reductive thing to say). So where did this dumbass idea come from, and what is it these people actually think is going on?
The Conspiracy Theory
First, let’s state the conspiracy theory as clearly and concisely as possible: Bill Gates something something microchips.
Okay, with ill-conceived Internet rumors, it can be hard to pin it down to one specific idea that you can refute, but for now we can pick a specific formulation based on popularity. According to an online poll, 44% of Republicans and 50% of people whose primary source of news is Fox News (because of course) believe in a rumor that originated on Facebook (because also of course) that “Bill Gates wants to use a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 to implant microchips in people that would be used to track people with a digital ID.” 
I’m not 100% clear on exactly what “tracking” is supposed to mean here, but some people seem to see it as tracking whether you’ve been tested  or monitoring people’s behavior/location.
The poll here didn’t really address this, but the general vibe I’ve gotten is that this is supposed to involve the surreptitious implantation of microchips via the injection. I suppose I could be projecting my own biases with that assumption, but that’s what we’ll roll with for the rest of this post, because if the claim is that they’re letting you know that they’re implanting you with microchips, my case can rest by saying: Yeah, they didn’t do that with me.
It has also been posited that Bill Gates is pushing for the use of tracking bracelets for location tracking purpose. This is not unprecedented, but I’ll largely ignore this particular rumor, because:
- Gates hasn’t suggested this, and, more importantly,
- The idea of Gates covertly monitoring us via tracking bracelets makes for an odd conspiracy theory, since you would presumably notice if they gave you a bracelet along with your vaccine, and in any event, a clever lifehack would be to take off the bracelet.
So where’d this come from?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say that it came out of nowhere, but in this case they at least have a flimsy basis in reality, although “basis” may be a somewhat charitable term under the circumstances.
Some time ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded research intended to help eradicate polio and measles by accompanying childhood vaccinations with the injection of a dye that creates a temporary (~5 years), invisible tattoo that contains the patient’s immunization record.  The point here would be to facilitate record keeping, which can be problematic in developing countries.
Gates has also expressed approval of the idea of a national tracking system: 
The testing in the US is not organized yet. In the next few weeks I hope the Government fixes this by having a website you can go to find out about home testing and kiosks. Things are a bit confused on this right now. In Seattle the U of W is providing thousands of tests per day but no one is connected to a national tracking system.
Whenever there is a positive test it should be seen to understand where the disease is and whether we need to strengthen the social distancing. South Korea did a great job on this including digital contact tracing.
However, supporting the idea of a contact tracing effort is different from actually having any involvement in creating one, and he didn’t say anything about microchips.
Well, this should be relatively obvious. Bill Gates is not using the COVID-19 vaccine to secretly inject you with microchips (or dyes).  
But let’s not give up after only discussing the fact that the whole microchip idea is wrong. Let’s talk about how it’s stupid.
To reiterate: the 2016 study that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded was for dyes, not microchips. And why? Well, let’s start with a minor hurdle to the whole microchip implantation idea: it’s impossible.
Okay, maybe not impossible, but nobody knows how to do it (yet).
If you’ve ever used a computer, you’ve probably had the urge to whip out a sledgehammer and smash the damn thing to pieces. If you’ve ever succumbed to the urge–and I recommend against it, since the act is highly addictive, and if you do it once, you may have difficulty ever coming near a computer again without Hulking out on it–then you’ve probably noticed a couple key attributes, most significantly: they are actual physical things that operate within the real world.
They are made out of real materials that have mass, structure, and size, and they require electricity to function. So if you envision a tiny computer under your skin that perpetually tracks your GPS coordinates and transmits them to Microsoft so that they can…optimize your Bing results or something…then you can forget that. GPS devices are generally a bit bulky and, if you have any experience with Google Maps, you know that they will absolutely devour your batteries.
Incidentally, you know what’s fun about batteries? They also take up space, which is a definite minus if you want to insert one under your skin (which…sounds safe, right?). And, generally, the bigger the battery, the more charge it can hold…meaning a battery small enough to hide in a syringe without detection wouldn’t be able to actually power a device worth hiding.
Not to mention the fact that transmitting data also consumes energy, as well as the fact that the signals emitted are also physical things that curious nerds can detect, if they happen to have the right equipment running at the right time.
However, all of that only rules out naive ideas about what an implanted microchip might be like. The truth is that implantable microchips do exist. They’re just boring.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags use radio signals to send data to a reader. These can be divided into active tags and passive tags…the most salient difference here being that active tags use a battery to power their signal, thereby subjecting them to the problems I mentioned earlier (that is, being a stupid idea).
Passive tags, however, are the most plausible solution if you want to secretly implant microchips into an unsuspecting populace, although they do suffer the notable drawback of being nearly useless.
What exactly is it about a passive tag that makes it passive? When you use a passive tag, it’s just one part of the system–there’s also that reader that it sends data to. In the face of a passive tag, you’ll need and active reader, which means it will transmit a signal that the RFID tag will receive and respond to. So why doesn’t the tag need a battery, I hear you ask?
Because the tag is instead powered by the very signal that it is responding to…which is just…so cool.
It does come at a cost in terms of range, however; more electricity means a stronger signal, and there’s a reason electricity via airwaves isn’t going to power your house any time soon.
In terms of size, RFID chips can be tiny…really tiny…but the tag overall also contains an antenna that accounts for the bulk of its footprint. The smaller you make the antenna, the shorter the range of the tag.
It is possible to implant passive RFID chips under the skin–it’s even been done as far back as 1998.  According to a USA Today interview with Chris Diorio:
- You can’t really hide the chips; about the smallest you can get them are the ones we put in pets (about the size of pills), and
- the salt water in our bodies limits the range of the reader, such that reading the chips in pets requires the reader to be “right on the neck.”
These are things you might notice.
It’s difficult to envison a viable surveillance program where its agents need to discretely bump into the shoulders of 328 million Americans everyday, especially when 10% of the time they need to back up and say, “Wait, are you a southpaw? Here, let me try the other shoulder.”
Unless the surveillance program took the somehow even less practical approach of planting readers everywhere around you, and just sort of hoping that you’d bump shoulder-first into them.
Mind you, for all that effort, all they’d get from the tag is the little bit of fixed data that is stored on the tag; the likely scenario would be something like a unique identifier (e.g., a social security number) which would then need to be paired with where your reading was taken, or perhaps just the date on which you were vaccinated, if that’s what this massive surveillance program is trying to determine (I…guess for contact tracing purposes? Who knows what this hypothetical conspiracy is actually for).
Three’s a Crowd
Now let’s forget all that stuff and move on to the non-technical problems. Let’s start with a problem that plagues a lot of conspiracy theories: the nubmer of people involved. Hundreds of millions of microchips don’t secretly build and disseminate themselves–someone has to actually do it, and Bill Gates…seems to have his hands full at the moment, so he’s probably not going to do them all on his own. As the adage goes, three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
And, because nerds are gonna nerd, a physicist named David Robert Grimes actually developed a mathematical model to describe the viability of conspiracies based on how many people would have to shut up in order to sustain them.  He also did the math on how long a conspiracy could (potentially) survive based on the number of people in it. Turns out, to survive 5 years, the upper limit of participants is 2,521.  After that, someone will wind up spilling the beans, either accidentally or intentionally.
At least, according to the model. Admittedly, the model is probabilistic and is based exclusively off of observations from conspiracies that got discovered, so it’s not necessarily an airtight proof, but the broad idea that more people = higher chance of disclosure is pretty hard to argue with, even if you assume that the odds of any given individual breaking the silence are low.
And how many people would need to keep this secret? Well, someone had to manufacture these microscopic RFID tags that can invisibly fit into the syringes. And the readers. Someone had to write the software to monitor these tags. We’ll need database administrators for all this data. And the medical professionals administering the injection. And also every medical professional who will ever examine you ever, since, at least based on this account of someone who got an RFID implant, they show up on x-rays. And also from looking at her hand.
But anyway, forget all that stuff, too. Let’s go with the biggest problem with this conspiracy theory.
The proprosed motives I’ve seen are either a) to track whether you’ve gotten your vaccine, or b) to spy on your location.
Tracking whether you’ve gotten your vaccine is more in-line with the things that Gates has actually said and done. However, the 2016 tracking study that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded was for developing countries. Which is a thing that the U.S. isn’t. We don’t need to embed medical records in people. If you want to track whether people are getting their vaccines and you don’t care about legal constraints, you can just type the information into a computer. You have to register to get the vaccine anyway.
If, on the other hand, they’re after location data, then I think Gates–who founded and ran a major tech company for a long time–would probably consider the fact that we all carry goddamn tracking devices around in our pockets, and that would be a much cheaper attack vector than trying to implant us all with microchips.
Or, a potentially less attention-grabbing way of spying on us would be to, for instance, set up a nationwide system of automated license plate readers logging location information to a centralized database that is then sold to private companies and law enforcement alike with no transparency or accountability.
It’s not like there’s any shortage of covert surveillance and invasion of privacy at the moment. Entire companies are based on it. Marketing in the Internet era is basically just cyberstalking, and frankly, for the most part, it’s not a big secret and people don’t much seem to care.
It’s telling, then, that so many people are only suddenly interested in this fictional invasion of privacy now that they have a right-wing, bullshit narrative starring Bill Gates to complain about. Specifically, it says that deep down, our country is still torn apart by a festering, lingering resentment about Windows ME.
Seriously, what the fuck was that about?
The difference between what Republicans and Democrats believe to be true about COVID-19 ↩︎
Coronavirus: Bill Gates ‘microchip’ conspiracy theory and other vaccine claims fact-checked ↩︎ ↩︎
Post about Bill Gates’ work on vaccine tracking distorts research, timeline ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎
Hong Kong is putting electronic wristbands on arriving passengers to enforce coronavirus quarantine ↩︎
Invisible Ink Could Reveal whether Kids Have Been Vaccinated ↩︎
I’m Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AMA about COVID-19. ↩︎
Fact check: Americans won’t have microchips implanted by end of 2020 ↩︎