By Gene J. Koprowski, FOXNews.com
May 14, 2010
Scientists tag animals to monitor their behavior and keep track of endangered species. Now some futurists are asking whether all of mankind should be tagged too. Looking for a loved one? Just Google his microchip.
The chips, called radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, emit a simple radio signal akin to a bar code, anywhere, anytime. Futurists say they can be easily implanted under the skin on a person’s arm.
Already, the government of Mexico has surgically implanted the chips, the size of a grain of rice, in the upper arms of staff at the attorney general’s office in Mexico City. The chips contain codes that, when read by scanners, allow access to a secure building, and prevent trespassing by drug lords.
In research published in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, Taiwanese researchers postulate that the tags could help save lives in the aftermath of a major earthquake.
"Office workers would have their identity badges embedded in their RFID tags, while visitors would be given temporary RFID tags when they enter the lobby," they suggest. Similarly, identity tags for hospital staff and patients could embed RFID technology.Having one in every person could relieve anxiety for parents and help save lives, or work on a more mundane level by unlocking doors with the wave of a hand or starting a parked car -- that's how tech enthusiast Amal Graafstra (his hands are pictured above) uses his. But this secure, “instrumented” future is frightening for many civil liberties advocates. Even adding an RFID chip to a driver’s license or state ID card raises objections from concerned voices.
“Our world is becoming instrumented,” IBM’s chairman and CEO, Samuel J. Palmisano said at an industry conference last week. “Today, there are nearly a billion transistors per human, each one costing one ten-millionth of a cent. There are 30 billion radio RFID tags produced globally.”
Tracking boxes and containers on a ship en route from Hong Kong is OK, civil libertarians say. So is monitoring cats and dogs with a chip surgically inserted under their skin. But they say tracking people is over-the-top -- even though the FDA has approved the devices as safe in humans and animals.
“We are concerned about the implantation of identity chips,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the speech, privacy and technology program at the American Civil Liberties Union. He puts the problem plainly: “Many people find the idea creepy.”There are a number of entrepreneurial companies marketing radio tracking technologies, including Positive ID, Datakey and MicroChips. Companies started marketing the idea behind these innovative technologies a few years ago, as excellent devices for tracking everyone, all the time.
“RFID tags make the perfect tracking device,” Stanley said. “The prospect of RFID chips carried by all in identity papers means that any individual’s presence at a given location can be detected or recorded simply through the installation of an invisible RFID reader.”
Following its first use in an emergency room in 2006, VeriChip touted the success of the subdermal chip.
"We are very proud of how the VeriMed Patient Identification performed during this emergency situation. This event illustrates the important role that the VeriChip can play in medical care," Kevin McLaughlin, President and CEO of VeriChip, said at the time.But are human's "systems" to be measured?
“Because of their increasing sophistication and low cost, these sensors and devices give us, for the first time ever, real-time instrumentation of a wide range of the world's systems -- natural and man-made,” said IBM's Palmisano.
Grassroots groups are fretting loudly over civil liberties implications of the devices, threatening to thwart their development for mass-market, human tracking applications.
“If such readers proliferate, and there would be many incentives to install them, we would find ourselves in a surveillance society of 24/7 mass tracking,” said the ACLU's Stanley.The controversy extends overseas, too. David Cameron, Britain's new prime minister, has promised to scrap a proposed national ID card system and biometrics for passports and the socialized health service, options that were touted by the Labour Party.
"We share a common commitment to civil liberties, and to getting rid -- immediately -- of Labour's ID card scheme," said Cameron according to ZDNet UK.These controversies are impacting developers. One firm, Positive ID, has dropped the idea of tracking regular folks with its chip technology. On Wednesday, the company announced that it had filed a patent for a new medical device to monitor blood glucose levels in diabetics. The technology it initially developed to track the masses is now just a “legacy” system for the Del Ray Beach, Fla., firm.
“We are developing an in-vivo, glucose sensing microchip,” Allison Tomek, senior vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, told FoxNews.com. “In theory it will be able to detect glucose levels. We are testing the glucose sensor portion of the product. It will contain a sensor with an implantable RFID chip. Today’s patent filing was really about our technology to create a transformational electronic interface to measure chemical change in blood.”Gone are the company’s previous ambitions.
“Our board of directors wants a new direction,” says Tomek. “Rather than focus on identification only, we think there is much more value in taking this to a diagnostic platform. That’s the future of the technology -- not the simple ID.”The company even sold off some of its individual-style tracking technology to Stanley Black and Decker for $48 million, she said.
These medical applications are not quite as controversial as the tracking technologies. The FDA in 2004 approved another chip developed by Positive ID’s predecessor company, VeriChip, which stores a code -- similar to the identifying UPC code on products sold in retail stores -- that releases patient-specific information when a scanner passes over the chip. Those codes, placed on chips and scanned at the physician’s office or the hospital, would disclose a patient’s medical history.
But like smart cards, these medical chips can still be read from a distance by predators. A receiving device can "speak” to the chip remotely, without any need for physical contact, and get whatever information is on it. And that’s causing concern too.
The bottom line is simple, according to the ACLU: “Security questions have not been addressed,” said Stanley. And until those questions are resolved, this technology may remain in the labs.
July 2, 2009
Yet another sci-fi milestone is upon us: microchips implanted under your skin and used to identify you.
The VeriChip is the first radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchip that’s been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in humans. The chip is the size of a long grain of rice, and can be implanted pretty much anywhere in the body (most commonly along the tricep). Depending on how it’s used, the chip could do anything from telling doctors your medical background to buying you a round at the club.
Outside of human bodies, RFID is already used for a wide range of purposes. If you pay highway tolls electronically, that little box in your car has an RFID tag in it. Lots of folks implant their pets with RFID chips in case they get lost, as animal shelters increasingly scan pets for them. Wal-Mart tracks their shipments with RFID, which has apparently revolutionized supply chain management. Hell, there’s even one in your passport.
But why put one inside your body? As interesting as it might be to have your ID show up on an x-ray, most people would rather suffer a line at the DMV than a rice-injection. Sure, it might make for good conversation at a party. But is that worth the needle? What would it take to get one under your skin?
VeriChip Corp. markets their product to address what they call “a serious need for personal identification and information in emergency situations.” Over the past two years, the company has piloted their product with 200 Alzheimer’s patients in a Florida facility. Because of their condition, many patients are unable to effectively communicate if they are admitted to the hospital without caregivers present. The VeriChip contains a 16-digit ID number which links the recipient to a secure computer database where their medical information is stored. The chips are used to replace MedicAlert wristbands, which can be removed or damaged.
Most other proposed applications for in-body RFID are medical in nature: providing doctors immediately with a patient’s medical records, or identification if they are unconscious or unable to communicate. Still, these applications require that each hospital contain a computer database to connect an individual’s tag with their information. That’s probably a long way off.
Luckily, the hospital isn’t the only testing ground for RFID chips under the skin. A nightclub in Barcelona called Baja Beach has started offering chip implants to its customers, giving them access to VIP lounges and letting clubbers buy drinks by acting as a debit account. Who wants to carry a wallet or purse when the dress-code is board shorts and bikinis? Baja Beach contracted none other than VeriChip Corp. to fashion their subcutaneous membership cards. I guess last call counts as an “emergency situation.”
In the past, VeriChip Corp claimed their chips could not be counterfeited: if your ID is under the skin, it can’t be so easily stolen. Wrong. At a hacker conference in 2006, Annalee Newitz and Jonathan Westhues showed that they had successfully cloned an RFID chip implanted in Newitz. A home-built antenna let the hackers steal the unique ID contained on the chip, which apparently lacks any sort of security device.
If RFID chips aren’t exactly secure, most people won’t want their social security number contained on one. After all, if a doctor’s office can pull your medical records from the chip (and a hacker can, too) what’s stopping your insurance agency? Or identity theives? That limits the chips to using random numbers, corresponding to useful information on a separate and secure database. And until those databases are standardized and prevalent, having a chip in your body won’t speed up your doctor’s visit very much.
As you might already imagine, in-body RFID chips have spawned a considerable backlash of protest. The group AntiChips calls the VeriChip “human branding,” especially in the case of the “volunteers” for the program with Alzheimer’s disease. They also claim the chips cause cancer (citing a number of animal studies), and that the FDA approval should be revoked (more info here). There are also a number of additional risks which the FDA already recognizes: tissue reactions, migration of the chip, even the chance that the chip could carry a current from MRI magnets and burn the patient.
And that’s just the beginning. The chips have been called the precursor to a perfect authoritarian state, letting Uncle Sam (or Illuminati, or whoever) track your each and every move. On the other end of the spectrum, some religious groups (well, okay, this one) have implicated the VeriChip in a plot involving the mark of the beast (666), part of a conspiracy theory to rival the most imaginative of left-wingers. Wait, this one too.
But if I can interject my own opinion, I’d say the whole business is a bit overhyped. Honestly, there aren’t really any good applications for in-body RFID. Sure, it could hypothetically improve health-care (if and when the patient is unconscious), but for that system to be effective, every hospital would need to have integrated the chips into their standard procedures. It won’t replace a photo ID in your wallet anytime soon. And unless you’re grinding some PYT* in Barcelona, you’ll probably pay for that Pabst with good old fashioned cash. Take (a) the lack of practical applications, plus (b) legitimate concerns over ID hacking and health risks, and poof! There goes the revolution.