The Identity Chip
What if you have a medical emergency when no one who knows you is around? How will you communicate your medical history in time to save your life?
The answer, according to some, lies in the controversial Verichip, a radio frequency identification (RFID) microchip the size of a rice grain, implanted into your right arm and containing a unique identification number. With a quick scan a doctor could access your medical history in seconds, by connecting to an external database where the number is linked to your medical file.
But though it may sound like a great idea, few are rushing to get a chip of their own. So far, the maker estimates, only some 2,000 people world wide – the majority in America – have been outfitted since the introduction of the chip in 2004.
The nature of the chip was bound to bring attention from various groups, from privacy advocates to religious entities to others who just cannot airbrush out the likeness to the dystopian society described in George Orwell’s post war novel 1984; the chip has been heavily criticized.
"If ever there was a technology calling for public-policy assessment, it is RFID," according to Beth Givens, a director of a privacy rights organization. RFID is essentially invisible and can result in both profiling and locational tracking of consumers without their knowledge or consent."
Some Christian groups have linked the chip to a prophecy in the book of Revelations, referred to as the mark of the beast, highlighting the similarities of the location of the implant, namely the right arm. But the chip has its benefits too, according Richard Seelig, a physician and employee at the Verichip Corporation:
"The best way to appreciate [the chip’s] value is ask yourself right now to list the manufacturer of your stents, when they were placed, which hospital, who was the cardiologist, the diameter of the stents and, if they are coated with a medication, what type. Now imagine you are confused, disoriented or unconscious."
The chip can also be used to simplify other complications in life. In Spain and Holland for example, the chip has been used in certain nightclubs to "ease" the stay for distinguished VIPs, no longer having to pay in cash. In Canada, a couple got chipped to open their house door by the swoosh of an arm, never again having to search for keys. In an interview shortly after he was chipped, Amal Graafstra, who got the chip to open his house door, told reporters:
"It (the chip) is not interacting with my body in any way, and the chip can only be used for what I want to use it for."
RFID chips have been used for years to identify pets and livestock. In the UK, the chip was used to discourage pet owners from dumping their pets onto the streets, as the costs for keeping a pet at a pound would be charged back to the owner, as identified by the chip. Elsewhere, the chip is used in identity cards, credit cards and in key cards the world over.
Surveillance is increasingly common in western societies, with cameras on every street corner in most major cities; even without the chips, phone and internet surveillance has people already talking about an Orwellian society. But no surveillance has gone quite this far ‘under the skin’. We’re not talking about stray dogs or lost passports. One case of media criticism and the development of the chip has been aimed at the so-far only two employers who have required employees to be chipped on the job. One was a security firm in the U.S., the other the Mexican government. In each case the stated reason was security, with only chipped employees allowed to access certain files.
"It works great. I just walk to the door in front of the reader, it beeps and the door opens up," said Sean Darks, chief executive officer of CityWatcher.com, the security firm in question.
Another case of public debate has been the recent public relations campaign by the CEO of the Verichip Corporation, Scott Silverman, where he has outspokenly advocated that anyone could (and should) be chipped. In a Fox News interview, he suggested that both immigrants and business could use the chip:
"Through a serial port, it (the chip) attaches to a computer, where a database would pull up and the medical application – but in the immigration application, the registration of a guest worker legitimately here in the United States, that could be used at the border. But it could also be used for enforcement purposes at the employer level."
He concludes that in the end, the choice of having a chip implanted could be "an election on the part of the immigrant, or an election on the part of the government." As if the distinction was inconsequential.
The question then really becomes, for whom is the chip the most useful? In a time when terrorism dominates public debate and programs impinging on civil rights in the name of security, like the Patriot Act in the U.S. and press censorship in Russia, have been implemented, would-be patriots might need to get chipped to be sure others know their allegiances. With sensors so small, many fear they will be tracked by hidden readers every where they go.
Such claims are considered futuristic, at best, by supporters of the chip. Even if such intentions were there, they say, the vast amount of resources and time needed to operate such a system is simply not available.
Another problem is identity theft, or "spoofing," as the electronic version is now called. Jonathan Westhues, an independent security researcher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, demonstrated how easy it was to pick up chip codes, electronically store the signal; and then use it to open a door – or access your whole life. (The online manual can even be found at http://cq.cx/verichip.pl)
"You pass within a foot of a chipped person, copy the chip’s code, then with a push of the button, replay the same ID number to any reader. You essentially assume the person’s identity."
In Austria, there are as yet no scanners, nor users of the chip. But this may change. Today, there are over 250,000 security cameras in Vienna alone. It might only be a question of time before these cameras, as in America, begin turning into scanners.
All issues aside, the fundamental question basic to the controversy remains, why do we even need a chip? What is wrong with a key card, a bracelet, or an identification card? And even if a person is to lose all of these, would it not be simpler to scan the fingerprints of a citizen if they should wish it so, and then use that to connect to a medical database?
John Halamka, an emergency physician, who chose to have a chip implanted, told AP reporters after the security firm in USA brought considerable media attention:
"My friends have commented to me that I’m ‘marked’ for life, that I’ve lost my anonymity. And to be honest, I think they’re right."
Geraldine Padbury, a senior business analyst, while acknowledging privacy concerns today, concludes that there may be fade out with time:
"With teenagers happy to use MySpace and blogs to share details of their private lives, there may be less concern surrounding privacy than for other generations."
Losing one’s anonymity should be a major concern for all personally involved with the chip.
But losing ones anonymity is not having it stolen, and fears that one by one, groups of people will be forced to have a chip implanted, starting with those with no ability to protest, the old, the military and the immigrants, as Katherine Albrecht, a privacy advocate says, one day the government might say "take a chip or starve."