Just Another Chip in the (Privacy) Wall

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Thu Nov 18 09:39:05 EST 2004


Technology Review

Just Another Chip in the (Privacy) Wall
 An electronic database implanted under the skin can assure speedy and
proper medical care-but is it worth it?

By David Kushner
November 18, 2004

You can almost see the ads now: Imagine a bright future with a chip in your

Went to the supermarket, but left the wallet at home? No problem! Flex your
bicep and the smiling cashier passes a scanner over your arm.
Voila-identification chip recognized! Problem solved. Your credit is good
with us!

Passed out during a sunrise jaunt on the top of Haleakala Mountain in Maui?
Fret not! The hospital down below is on the case. Arm please. Scanner! The
readout on the computer is fine. Just a little altitude sickness.

Key to the safety deposit box weighing you down? Chuck it! Next time you're
in the bank, give the teller a friendly wave-and watch the doors open to
greet you!

After decades as the stuff of sci-fi novels and anime movies, the age of
chipped humans is finally a reality. Last month, following two years of
review, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of an implantable
chip for medical applications. Each Verichip is the size of a grain of rice
and contains a unique, 16-digit radio frequency ID. Linked to a database,
that ID tag can call up a variety of information-from medical records to
financial information.

 Not surprisingly, the technology is causing its share of controversy.
Civil liberties groups are calling this the end of privacy. Religious
groups are calling it the number of the beast. Down on the shores of Delray
Beach, FL, Applied Digital-the company behind the Verichip-calls it a

 Like a lot of new technologies, the Verichip happened rather by accident.
Fifteen years ago, a company called Digital Angel developed implantable
identification chips for the purpose of tracking companion pets and cattle.
But the idea was nothing to moo at. Last year, 800,000 animal chips were
sold in the United States for $55 to $70 apiece-30 percent more than in

 If the chips could identify animals, why not a human being? This thought
occurred to Richard Seelig, a surgeon in New Jersey, shortly after the
attacks of September 11, 2001. Seelig watched with horror as New York City
firemen scrawled their social security numbers in black ink on the
forearms-just in case they were to be burned beyond recognition in the
inferno. Familiar with Digital Angel's work, Seelig voluntarily implanted
himself with a radio frequency identification chip. And the race to bring
it to the rest of the world was on.

According to Angela Fulcher, spokesperson for Applied Digital, the human
chip works in essentially the same manner as the animal chips. The chip is
contained inside a cylindrical transponder, a glass tube 11 millimeters in
length and 2.1 millimeters in diameter. Along with the chip is an antenna
coil, which picks up and transmits the identification number to a scanner.
The Pocket Reader, an existing handheld scanner created by Applied Digital,
reads the radio frequency ID number when it's passed over the skin within a
space of three or four inches.

Unlike the animal version, the human chip is coated with Biobond-a porous
polypropylene sheathe that connects to surrounding tissues. The chip is
implanted, via a proprietary Verichip inserter, in a fleshy area such as
the bicep. "Based on our experience at with microchips and animals,"
Fulcher says, "we see the lifespan at being 10 years."

 Although newly approved by the FDA, Verichips are already in use outside
the United States. In total, an estimated 1,000 people have been implanted
thus far. In Mexico, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the country's attorney
general, was implanted with a chip to provide secure access to government
documents. In Barcelona, a beach club is injecting partiers with ID chips
in lieu of hand stamps.

 Despite the announcement of the FDA approval, however, such frivolous
implants may soon be second guessed. Organizations have criticized Applied
Digital for not adequately disclosing the FDA's finding of Verichip's
risks. A group called the Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion
and Numbering, or Caspian, obtained a letter from the FDA to Applied
Digital dated October 12, and posted it on the Web. The letter cites
several "potential risks to health associated with the device," including
adverse tissue reaction, migration of the implanted transponder,
electromagnetic interference, electrical hazards, and incompatibility with
magnetic resonance imaging.

 In addition to medical concerns, privacy advocates lament the potential
abuses of implantable IDs. The outcry stems from the proliferation of radio
frequency identification in products and badges. The San Francisco Public
Library is trying to put ID chips in all of its books. In Virginia, the
Department of Motor Vehicles is considering putting chips on every driver's
license. The Ross Correctional Facility in Chillicothe, Ohio is running a
pilot program that will track prisoners using chipped badges.

Ostensibly, the idea is to provide a kind of DNA for merchandise (and
inmates), a unique identifier that can track where and how products are
distributed. But questions raised by implantable chips only complicate the
matters-particularly in light of the increased use of surveillance in the
workplace. "I see implantable chips as the wave of the future," says
Frederick S. Lane III, author of The Naked Employee: How Technology Is
Compromising Workplace Privacy.  Lane says "The problem is that it gives
employers access to so much information that they get to call the shots as
far as what's innocuous."

 And the battles could intensify if, as some fear, the devices can be used
in conjunction global position satellites. Fulcher says Applied Digital has
in fact developed a prototype of an implantable "personal location device,"
and has already obtained the intellectual property. Bringing such
technology to market, Fulcher says, "is a multimillion dollar conversation.
At the moment, we're focusing on our current technology. If the right
partner came along, however, that might be of interest."

David Kushner is a contributing writer for Technology Review who covers
digital entertainment technology. He is the author of Masters of Doom: How
Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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