Serafin Vilaplana - The Baja Beach Club IT Manager

The Baja Beach Club Implant Program

Mr Serafin Vilaplana

Interview conducted by Katina Michael on 4 June 2009, Barcelona, Spain

INTERVIEW

Katina Michael: I’d like to begin by asking you where the idea to implant patrons came from.

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, the owner-manager of the Baja Beach Club visited the United States, and he got the idea while traveling over there and hearing about the trial of the chip implant that was linked to electronic health records. These implants were first being used for the elderly and the sick.

Katina Michael: How did Conrad consider implementing the radio frequency identification (RFID) technology with respect to the club?

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, Conrad thought, if you can use the technology for ehealth solutions, you could certainly transfer it to work for access control applications.

Katina Michael: Yes, but what was actually the main driver … why implant humans, and more to the point why implant individual coming to visit a bar by day and a club by night?

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, you see it was all about us gaining the maximum publicity for the club that we could. Conrad believed that if we ran this implant program that clubbers in Barcelona, and even in others places in Spain, and tourists would hear about it, and be drawn to the club just to see it for themselves. It was all about the novelty of the application. In short, it was a marketing ploy, and it actually it worked well. We strongly believed that despite the high-tech application, it was good old traditional word of mouth that would drive people to come and participate in the clubbing experience.

Katina Michael: Did you charge people a fee to participate in this program?

Serafin Vilaplana: No, we did not. The VIP members traditionally spent a great deal of money at the club, so we were not about to charge them any more money. The point was to make it easier for them to spend money through the use of the chip. So convenience for our patrons was also something we though was important.

Katina Michael: How long did the Baja Beach chip implant trial last?

Serafin Vilaplana: The VIP chip implant program began in 2004 and ended in 2009, it lasted seven years in duration.

Katina Michael: How many people were chipped in the program?

Serafin Vilaplana: Not more than one hundred people were implanted.

Katina Michael: Did you design the access control system?

Serafin Vilaplana: Yes I did.

Katina Michael: How old were you when you built the system?

Serafin Vilaplana: Twenty-six years old.

Katina Michael: How long did the system take to go from requirements gathering to operation?

Serafin Vilaplana: Roughly between two and three months.

Katina Michael: That is a pretty short roll-out time for something that had never quite been done before in terms of a commercial service. And that you worked on this program all by yourself is quite amazing. Where did you go to university?

Serafin Vilaplana: Thanks. But I must clarify something, I have never actually gone to university. Most of my information technology capability was gained on my own. I am pretty good at learning new concepts. So I just did my research, and already had the ability to program from a young teenager, so the rest was quite easy for me.

Katina Michael: You make it sound so so simple?

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, that is because it is very simple. Let me explain further, I find programming very easy, I always have. It is a hobby of mine. And now I am even a web developer with many projects on the side. I like to tinker and have a go using new technologies, all the time.

Katina Michael: Have you heard of Mr Amal Graafstra of the United States who wrote RFID Toys?

Serafin Vilaplana: No.

Katina Michael: Well, Serafin, he pretty much is like you … and just like yourself, he too is an IT Manager for an American company. It is fascinating to me that both of you are self-taught, and both of you have become pretty successful despite the fact that you do not hold university degrees. You know I teach IT students at a tertiary institution in Australia, and sometimes I wish they had the same drive as people like yourself and Amal … I don’t want them to go out and put implants in their body, but sometimes I feel like students who are handed an education don’t make as much of it as they could … Could I ask you Serafin, whether any of the patrons, even complained about their implant or whether they had anything negative to say about the process or the implant itself.

Serafin Vilaplana: No, never ever. In the whole history of the program we had going at Baja Beach Club, not one implanted patron ever complained about the program. Absolutely not. On the contrary, everyone who opted to take the implant was really positive about the application.

Katina Michael: Serafin, what was the main drawing point of the chip implant application?

Serafin Vilaplana: It was quite simple really … our implanted patrons would have access to special VIP areas, and when they walked into the club, their name would automatically flash up on a big screen and a loud beep could be heard echoing throughout the club … the reaction by the other clubbers was always “Oh, look, so and so is here and he is bearing an implant in his body”, or “Ah, here comes that person again, he is special”. It was quite interesting to sit back and watch people’s reactions … it was at times quite amusing really … but the implantee patrons, really loved the extra attention, and people would instantly go up to them and talk to them and strike a conversation about anything… they were no longer anonymous, but were very approachable because people knew their name.

Katina Michael: Did people think it was cool?

Serafin Vilaplana: Oh yes, certainly. Young people love new technology. And not only that it was cool, but it brought some of our VIP patrons instant prestige. They were different and there was an attraction in that. Also, I should emphasize that our VIP patrons were pretty big spenders, they had a sizeable budget … so if your name flashed up on the screen, pretty much, people knew you were quite wealthy.

Katina Michael: Did the implant serve the patron any other functionality?

Serafin Vilaplana: Yes of course. It was not just an ID device. What I did was to create a whole purchasing program that had a back-end database with patron details. On the chip itself all that was stored was an ID number. I built a system that would read the ID number at the point of sale, and when the implantee purchased a drink or any other services, the total amount would be deducted from their stored value. They could top up their balance at any time they wished. It was really easy. We never had anything go wrong with that, ever. I had readers positioned all over the place, in strategic entry/exit points and also on all the doors, and areas leading into and out of VIP areas and of course at point of sale. I made sure to build the database on sound principles.

Katina Michael: Was it a big integration effort on your part?

Serafin Vilaplana: Not at all … it was a small customized system that I built. I did not rely on anything more than the RFID device, the readers, the antennas, a database to store the information collected, and the program I built to register patrons on the system and to enable transactions to be processed in real-time.

Katina Michael: Serafin, was it a transponder or a tag that you used for the RFID device?

Serafin Vilaplana: It was a tiny transponder.

Katina Michael: How does the technology work?

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, see this bar code [points to a bar code label on a water bottle], RFID works like this, except it is more powerful because it does not require line of sight.

Katina Michael: At what distance would a read take place? I assume the transponder was passive and not active?

Serafin Vilaplana: The read would be at very close range like within 10 centimetres and the transponder was passive.

Katina Michael: Who supplied the transponder?

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, look, there were many organizations who could have supplied the transponder. I did research on lots and lots of companies and products and found the one I liked best to meet our needs. It didn’t take me that long to find a supplier. I just wanted to make sure I had the best technology for what we wanted to do.

Katina Michael: What do you consider to be the best feature of the implant system you created?

Serafin Vilaplana: Definitely it was the fact that it would keep out unwanted persons from restricted areas in the club that were meant only for the select VIPs. Of course, others wanted to be a part of those zones but had not paid or subscribed to enjoy those services. Access control was really the best outcome of the program. For instance, now we are talking here in the office deep underground, and even these doors were secured so no one could snoop around where we keep all our files and computer equipment. No one could get into this nerve centre to steal important documentation. You can use access control to exclude and include dependent on who the person is.

Katina Michael: How did you actually engineer this?

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, I just had to define special roles. For example, VIP patron, employee, manager, administrator. Dependent on who you were in the registered database, you enjoyed certain privileges. So it was actually an access control matrix that I defined and then the rest was easy. But you have to pay special attention to when designing this matrix, because you really do not want to make errors. For instance, you would not want a VIP patron to have access to the management area for staff only.

Katina Michael: Where did you get some of your ideas to create different zoning areas?

Serafin Vilaplana: This was naturally instinctive to me … but also I had read a lot about the military applications they are proposing, and that are currently in use in some parts of the world. Have you heard about the way that some countries are thinking to integrate RFID implants for gun control? That is, the gun can only be fired when the right person, bearing the right ID tries to fire the gun. If anyone other than the soldier picks it up to fire, they would be unable to.

Katina Michael: Serafin, when you built your implant program, had you heard of the Cincinnati trial in the state of Ohio in the US?

Serafin Vilaplana: No.

Katina Michael: Okay, basically, a number of employees in this small organization were implanted.

Serafin Vilaplana: I must stress that people should be free to join programs and not forced into anything. We were not about this at all.

Katina Michael: So you would not condone the use of blanket coverage microchip implants for government programs which enforced the whole population to get an ID number?

Serafin Vilaplana: No. There must be freedom.

Katina Michael: Do you know of any other applications on the market, where microchip implants are currently being used?

Serafin Vilaplana: Look, there are so many now. Maybe they are not large scale but there are a lot of people looking at the potential. I always like to see where things are at in this space, and often look for information related to RFID to note the developments. While the vast majority of trials have only had very few people in them, nevertheless they have tested the concept works.

Katina Michael: Were there any limitations or problems with the VIP implant program at Baja Beach Club?

Serafin Vilaplana: Not really. About the only thing that I could say was a limitation, was that the enrolment process was very messy and required all these people to come together so that just one patron could be registered. It was very time consuming in my opinion, and very disruptive to add a new patron to the program. You needed a doctor, you needed a Club employee who had been trained in the process of registration (and most of the time it was me needing to be available to do the data entry and make sure it was all working as it should be), you needed the patron to make sure they wanted to participate in the trial, and that some kind of light anesthetic would be applied so the person would not feel any pain. So for me the main problem was that you just needed too many people to be involved in the whole registration process. It is just not viable as a business process, as there are too many costs involved.

Katina Michael: Where was the actual implant zone?

Serafin Vilaplana: It was in the arm at first but to be honest we realized this was not the most convenient location and so some people had it implanted on the inside of their wrist. This is the site that gives the individual maximum mobility and is user friendly. We injected so far as the implant could lodge itself in the muscle of the person and would not go moving around inside the body to render the program useless.

Katina Michael: Serafin, you mentioned that Baja Beach Club now does not exist in any form. What happens to all those 100 people that were implanted? Do they still have the implant?

Serafin Vilaplana: Yes. We are now called the Opium and under completely new management. I have just stayed on as their IT manager.

Katina Michael: So the implants in the VIP patrons are just dormant?

Serafin Vilaplana: Yes. But they are quite useless now. Even if someone was to chop off someone’s arm to use the ID device, they could not get far with it … I have changed all the ID entry access codes now- it was very simple.

Katina Michael: And nobody has ever asked you to remove the implant?

Serafin Vilaplana: No, they have not … it is just sitting in their body, it cannot do them any harm.

Katina Michael: Are there any plans to introduce a similar program under the new management in The Opium Club?

Serafin Vilaplana: No. That is now finished. Nobody will be implanted again here.

Katina Michael: Do you know of any other clubs that are now using your concept in other clubs anywhere else in the world?

Serafin Vilaplana: No, I do not think there is anyone else.

Katina Michael: Where do you think this technology is headed?

Serafin Vilaplana: Well, my hope is that one day, I do not have to carry any cards at all, that everything will be stored on centralized databases, and that my ID will be an implant so I do not have to carry around cumbersome wallets. I would feel very relieved as a consumer if all this would happen. I just want to be free of extras that are a nuisance. I just want people to be able to check my records, so I can go about my daily business without any hassles. It was save so much time … more to the point today we carry so many many cards, what is the point?! I cannot wait for this revolution to take place one day.

Katina Michael: Serafin, I am a little concerned at this statement … RFID is such an insecure device … people in the know already put sentinel jackets around their ePassport so it cannot be illegally read by another device. What do you say to this?

Serafin Vilaplana: Yes, I agree that RFID is an insecure technology, in fact it is very insecure. This is the whole point of using databases … the chip should just have an ID number, and that is it … everything else should be securely stored on a database. You would require a great deal of validation to be going on in the system, but with today’s processing speeds that is achievable. So you need to check the databases, validate, and synchronize with each transaction.

Katina Michael: Okay, let us go a little further with this possibility. Say for instance, a commercial organization, like a mobile phone company, was to[tell]  all their subscribers in the near future that they could take advantage of new wireless services if they got an implant.

Serafin Vilaplana: Katina, I must underscore here - consent is of utmost importance. If people want it they can adopt it, if they don’t want it, then that’s that. The decision must be with the consumer and not with the system creator. We never told anyone at the club - look, now you are under our patronage you must take this technology. No, never. And for the patrons, I must stress again, it was always up to them.

Katina Michael: Can you see any risks in the deployment of this type of technology for large-scale applications?

Serafin Vilaplana: No. Frankly I can only see positive benefits. There are no negatives.

Katina Michael: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Serafin Vilaplana: No. Just to say, if you need to contact me here is my business card.

Katina Michael: Thank you very much.

Key Terms and Definitions

Baja Beach Club: was an exclusive nightclub in Barcelona, Spain. In 2004 the Club began offering implantable microchips to its VIP customers for identification purposes but closed its operations in 2009. A sister club in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands also offered implantable microchips to its patrons but closed in 2011.

Chipping: the application of RFID tags/transponders, injected into the subdermal layer of the human body. To date chipping humans has happened on a voluntary basis through individual consent.

Implantee: someone who bears a radio-frequency identification device. Can also be used to denote an implantable prosthetic device in human. Some implants are passive (e.g. the VeriChip), others are active.

RFID: stands for radio-frequency identification. Components of an RFID system include a reader (also known as an interrogator) which communicates with a transponder that holds digital information in a microchip, such as a unique identifier.

Risk: the potential of loss resulting from a given action, activity and/or inaction.

Sentinel jacket: acts like a Faraday cage and shields implants from any electromagnetic waves, thus preventing reader queries from reaching them.

Transponder: is a device that emits an identifying signal in response to an interrogating received signal.

VIP: is a very important person.