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digital tattoo

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

With more than one meaning, a digital tattoo is to a temporary tattoo that is outfitted with electronics, such as sensors or a near field communication (NFC) chip. A digital tattoo also refers to the permanent nature of a person’s actions and communications online, also known as a digital footprint.

The first physical digital tattoos were NFC-equipped to enable communication of data like information from the wearer’s website or Facebook or Snapchat profiles. To access the user-selected information, a third party could just tap the tattoo on their smartphone.

The tattoos can also tie into tap-to-pay methods, providing the ability to identify oneself and pay for goods and services at NFC-enabled points of sale without carrying any device or a wallet. While there have been concerns about privacy, developers have assuaged doubts by ensuring that the chips can encrypt data.

The basic design for a digital tattoo is a graphic image that covers a small, flexible NFC chip on the wearer’s skin, sometimes small enough to fit on a fingertip. The NFC chip has a small amount of memory that can be accessed through a smartphone app and used for various purposes. Often the tattoo itself is metallic with an antenna. The tattoos can last up to a week and may cost little more than a standard temporary tattoo, chip included.

Microsoft partnered with MIT on a digital tattoo project that has a variety of paths. The devices can last a day on a charge and offer a number of types of antennas for different uses and communication ranges. The Microsoft design also offers options like thermally changing colors, which could be used to indicate the user’s body temperature. More complex digital tattoo designs can be used as touchscreens, among other possibilities.

A digital tattoo can also refer to the record of someone’s actions and communications online and its permanence, like a physical tattoo. More commonly known as a digital footprint, the body of data that exists as a result of online actions and communications can in some way be traced back to an individual. Once the data is made public, especially on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, it is relatively impossible to control. Digital footprint management (DFM) focuses on cautioning about online activities to curb the amount of data that can be gathered from online use. 

An example of spreading digital tattoo awareness is the University of British Columbia’s project called Digital Tattoo, which is an online privacy and security initiative designed to improve student awareness about online risks.

This was last updated in March 2018

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