Thursday, November 18, 2004

Hello, Mr. Chip 

The bad news is, your every movement and retail transaction may soon be instantly traceable. The good news is, paranoid fundamentalists can stop worrying about bar codes:
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 . . . .

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 . . . .

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.

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