HUMAN ID CHIPS GET UNDER MY SKIN
The technology is available, but the potential for
misuse is almost limitless. Our columnist takes you through the dangers of this futuristic process
David H. Holtzman February 12, 2008, 12:01AM EST
While it's easy to reject the notion of placing
little ID chips inside humans as an ominous Orwellian invasion of individual rights, I suspect it's inevitable that in my
lifetime we will all have some kind of computerized implants. My problem is not with the technology, known as chipping, or
with the companies that sell it. My concern stems from my lack of trust in institutions and lack of belief that the technology
will be forever restricted to beneficial, socially acceptable uses.
Chipping involves implanting a transponder chip
below the skin for identification purposes. VeriChip (CHIP), the one company that has gained FDA clearance to perform this
procedure, has emerged as the process's leading advocate. The implant procedure itself is simple and mostly painless, accomplished
in a doctor's office in a matter of seconds.
Generally speaking, the only data stored on the
chip is a 16-digit ID number that cross-references to a record in VeriChip's database. Nevertheless the chip raises a number
of troubling concerns:
Health. Before diving into privacy and security concerns, it is worth noting recent
reports indicate implanted chips may have caused tumors in small lab animals, and therefore may be equally dangerous for humans.
I am not qualified to express an opinion on the subject other than to note the FDA has approved the device as safe. Evidence
to the contrary will probably take years to accumulate, and at that point, a debate would be useless to those already afflicted.
Privacy. Advocates of chipping often downplay privacy and security worries by stressing
the chips merely contain a number rather than any actual personal information. However, that may be dangerous enough. A centralized
numeric database storing information on a significant number of Americans begins to look a lot like a national ID card. But
unlike an ID card safely stowed in a wallet, the numbers on these chips can potentially be read wirelessly by someone standing
near you with an inexpensive handheld reader. Legislative attempts to establish a national ID, such as the REAL ID Act, have
proven to be highly controversial. It would be a shame to have human chipping effectively short-circuit that debate and create
a de facto national identification system.
Hacking and Misuse. I trust VeriChip, I guess. At least I have no reason not to trust
them. But what about someone hacking into their databases? (Please don't tell me their security is absolutely foolproof—thanks
to all the credit-card system breaches, we all know better.) All it would take is a careless employee to accidentally expose
everyone's numbers to an ill-intentioned hacker. Since you can't reprogram chips already implanted, would we all need to have
them physically swapped out whenever VeriChip's database was compromised? I also suspect it wouldn't be too hard to execute
"man-in-the-middle" attacks that snag an individual's chip number for malicious use.
Consent. The leading candidates proposed for the initial rounds of chipping are people
who are either unwilling or unable to give informed consent. While there have been a few actual instances of mandatory chipping—the
Attorney General of Mexico forced his staff to get implants to gain access to a sensitive document room—most uses remain
theoretical. For example, VeriChip has advocated chipping Alzheimer's patients as a way to help families find those sufferers
who get lost.
Scott Silverman, VeriChip's chairman, has proposed
mandatory chipping of guest workers and immigrants. A hospital in Ontario plans to implant the chips in babies, and the
U.S. Army is mulling a requirement for enlisted personnel.
The elderly, immigrants, babies,
low-ranking soldiers…these are not exactly the most powerful segments of U.S.
society. Compare this to new technologies such as laser eye surgery and non-invasive heart procedures, where the wealthy and
powerful typically benefit well before the lower rungs of the social ladder. I am inherently distrustful of technologies that
start deployment at the bottom of the power pyramid.
Unintended Consequences. Once implanted, these chips, and the associated network of
chip readers deployed to work with them, will be around for a long time. Let's give VeriChip, participating hospitals, and
government agencies the benefit of the doubt about being ethical and well-intentioned organizations. But who knows which agencies
might be given access to the database down the road as part of new policy initiatives. Congressmen are notorious for passing
legislation requiring the government to exploit existing databases for new endeavors, such as targeting deadbeat dads or delinquent
student loan holders through the IRS tax refund system.
I can think of countless initiatives that could
be launched to make use of a sufficiently large group of chipped people: a universal college student ID system; chip readers
in cars that would block drivers with unpaid parking tickets from using their vehicles; tracking people with a history of
emotional disturbances; court-ordered chipping tied to domestic restraining orders; government monitoring of people found
to have a high-risk profile through computer profiling; outfitting firearms with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader
and requiring gun owners to be chipped to fire their weapon (like existing thumbprint locks).
Once a sufficient number of humans have had chips
implanted, for whatever the reason, all bets on containing the technology are off. A responsible debate on human chipping
would consider the extreme scenario—widespread mandatory implants—and not just focus on the initial "socially
acceptable" proposals that target specific populations such as Alzheimer's patients, children, or convicts on work release
Reduced Expectations. Although there is no guarantee of privacy written explicitly into
the Constitution, a century of court rulings has carved out some tenuous protections for Americans, most of which are based
on the concept of "expectation of privacy." A widely deployed system of human ID chips might very well erode that expectation,
weakening everyone's shield against privacy intrusions.
As citizens, we need legal safeguards ensuring
that any use of this technology adheres to publicly acceptable guidelines. At a minimum, any chipping must be truly voluntary
rather than mandatory. But I am afraid this will be almost impossible to ensure without legislation such as that enacted by
Wisconsin last year, barring all mandatory human chipping.
Any potential privacy-busting technology such
as this one must be introduced with substantive protections that far exceed ambiguous corporate pledges that boil down to
"Trust me." With all due respect, I'm afraid that I don't.