Wanted: Power-systems engineer with experience in high-power (5–100-kW) motor-controller design. Must be U.S. citizen and have valid ISO1443-compatible access-control RFID implant.
Sound farfetched? Today, yes. A decade from now, maybe not.
With the proliferation of radio-frequency identification technology and the recent, but increasing, use of implantable RFID chips in humans, we may already be on a path that would make such an ad commonplace in a 2017 issue of IEEE Spectrum.
The benefits would be undeniable—an implantable RFID chip, which is durable and about the size of a grain of rice, can hold or link to information about the identity, physiological characteristics, health, nationality, and security clearances of the person it’s embedded in. The proximity of your hand could start your car or unlock your front door or let an emergency room physician know you are a diabetic even if you are unconscious. Once implanted, the chip and the information it contains are always with you—you’d never lose your keys again.
But there is a darker side, namely the erosion of our privacy and our right to bodily integrity. After all, do you really want to be required to have a foreign object implanted in your arm just to get or keep a job? And once you have it, do you really want your employer to know whenever you leave the office? And do you want every RFID reader–equipped supermarket checkout counter to note your presence and your purchases?
Until a couple of years ago, chipping humans was largely the domain of cybernetics provocateurs like Kevin Warwick or hobbyists like Amal Graafstra [see Graafstra’s accompanying article, “Hands On”]. Then, in 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices in the United States, approved an RFID tag for implantation in humans as a means of accessing a person’s health records.
This tag, called VeriChip, is a short-range transponder that relies on the signal from a reader unit for its power supply [see photo, “Anatomy of an RFID Tag”]. When exposed to a varying magnetic field from the reader, the chip powers itself up and repeatedly transmits a 16-digit code that is unique to the tag. According to the company, 2000 people have already had tags implanted.
The VeriChip tag is part of a health information system called VeriMed. The code contained in the implanted chip points to a record in a database identifying the patient and containing that patient’s health records. By scanning a person’s chip, caregivers can retrieve an identification code that enables them to access the medical history of people who cannot otherwise communicate their identities—speeding up their treatment and possibly saving their lives.
VeriChip Corp., a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions, headquartered in Delray, Fla., is also promoting its device as a security measure. It has six clients around the world, five of which use the implant as a secondary source of authentication, says Keith Bolton, vice president of government and international affairs for VeriChip. The highest-profile example of this application came in 2004 when the attorney general of Mexico and 18 of his staff had chips implanted to allow them to gain access to certain high-security areas.
The tag is also finding use as a kind of implanted credit card. In trendy nightclubs in the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, and the United States, patrons can get “chipped”—at a cost of about US $165 in one establishment. In future visits, “by the time you walk through the door to the bar,” one proprietor told Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “your favorite drink is waiting for you, and the bar staff can greet you by name.”
And the list of proposed applications could grow quickly. VeriChip is advancing a scheme to “chip” soldiers, as a replacement for a soldier’s traditional dog tag, and a VeriChip officer has proposed chipping guest workers entering the United States.
Before too many of those suggestions become realities, we need to examine carefully the very real dangers that RFID implants could pose to our privacy and our freedom. If we don’t figure out the risks and come up with ways to mitigate them, someone answering that ad for a power engineer may live in a world with considerably less privacy and feel compelled to have an implant just to be able to get a job.
The VeriChip tag’s main use, as a means of identifying patients who might be unable to communicate with caregivers and of accessing their medical records, could clearly be lifesaving in emergency situations. As long as the patient has provided informed consent and the privacy of the patient’s medical records is adequately protected, there are few ethical concerns with the technology. But VeriChip Corp.’s well-meaning attempt to improve personal health care may serve as a beachhead for wider use, and that expansion could create urgent ethical issues, particularly if an element of coercion enters into the process.