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Commentary > On Technology

RFID: Getting Under Your Skin?
Chip implants have intriguing possibilities, but raise host of privacy and ethics concerns.
August 5, 2004: 12:27 PM EDT

NEW YORK (Fortune magazine) - Some people consider radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips to be cutting-edge technology. But bleeding-edge?

Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha announced recently that he, several members of his staff, and some 160 employees of a new, $30 million anticrime computer center in Mexico City, had all been implanted with RFID chips.

The identification chips, contained in a glass capsule that's slightly larger than a grain of rice, were injected into their upper arms by a syringe-like device. (Ouch!) When activated by a scanning signal, the chips send out a unique 64-bit code that can be linked to the person's identity, along with all sorts of other pertinent information, like security clearance.

According to Macedo, the chips made by VeriChip, a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions of Delray Beach, Fla. will help control and track access to the new anticrime center, which houses a centralized database intended to improve Mexico's dismal record of solving crimes. In a country where bribery and corruption are a problem, being able to track precisely who has access to the "delete" key in a criminal database can be quite useful.

But Macedo told reporters that the implanted chips also would make it easier for the authorities to trace him and his employees in the event they fall prey to kidnappers. It's a swell idea, considering that some 3,000 people are kidnapped and held for ransom each year in Mexico, but Scott R. Silverman, chairman and CEO of Applied Digital Solutions, says the attorney general may have his signals crossed.

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RFID chips, including the ones now worn subcutaneously in the long arms of the lawmen, typically have an effective range measured in a few inches or feet, depending on the design of the chip and the sensitivity of the scanners needed to "read" them.

So, unless the kidnappers accidentally drag their victim through a Wal-Mart, chances of locating him would be muy pequeo. Either Macedo was trying to bluff potential kidnappers or he was unclear on the difference between RFID and GPS (global positioning satellite), a somewhat related technology that would in fact allow him, or at least the body part containing the transceiver, to be tracked by satellite.

For now, though, GPS receivers are too large to inject; about the size of a taco, they would have to be surgically implanted.

But for short-range scanning of humans whether from sensors embedded in doorways, or handheld scanners in hospital emergency rooms subcutaneous RFID does have some intriguing possibilities. The U.S. Army has considered implanted RFID chips to forever end the anguish of Unknown Soldiers. Banks have entertained the idea of offering implanted tags to customers as a way to prevent thefts at ATM machines and retail stores. (That's one way to guarantee customer loyalty.) Nursing homes see some advantages in injecting tags in patients with Alzheimer's disease, who might wander or be incoherent. Police have suggested that pairing RFID'd officers with RFID'd handguns would keep the weapons from being used against the owner.

So far, however, very legitimate concerns about privacy and ethics, not to mention squeamishness about the implantation process, have kept such applications in the theoretical stage.

Well, almost. As the Mexican experience shows, some people are actually volunteering to be tagged. A nightclub in Spain opened a special lounge for regular patrons who volunteered to be implanted with RFID chips, allowing them to enter the club and buy drinks without the need for cash. (It would seem useful in nudist colonies, too: There's just no convenient place to carry a wallet.)

According to Silverman of Applied Digital Solutions, some 1000 people in the U.S. and elsewhere have RFID chips implanted in their bodies. Most, he said, sought the chips as a way to relay medical information to emergency workers instantly and reliably if, say, they had a heart attack or fell into a diabetic coma. The trouble is, the federal Food and Drug Administration still hasn't given its approval for human injection of subcutaneous RFID chips for such medical purposes. (A ruling is expected before the end of September.)

Meanwhile, less invasive uses of human RFID are proliferating. You may already have a "smart" ID card that lets you into the office building or into restricted areas. The badges you wear at industry conventions may have RFID chips in them. And if it hasn't happened already, you may be wearing an RFID chip embedded in the clothes you bought at Prada or Benetton.

As a result of rising violence in Japanese schools, children at an elementary school in Osaka are wearing RFID tags in a test to keep better track of them. Amusement parks in California and Europe are offering RFID bracelets to help children find their lost parents. Hospital maternity wards are using RFID bracelets to make sure that babies go home with the proper parents.

The difference, of course, is that RFID chips planted under the skin tend to be more permanent. The chips in the arms of the Mexican crime fighters are not greatly different than the ones implanted in the ears of millions of cattle (useful in tracking Mad Cow disease) or the necks of the 6000 or so lost pets that are reunited with their owners each year. Silverman says research is incomplete, but the subdermal chips are expected to remain effective at least 15 to 20 years.

By then, technology will have shrunk them from rice-sized to dust-sized. But the issues of privacy and ethics will be getting much larger.  Top of page

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