The technology is available, but the potential for misuse is almost limitless. Our columnist takes you through the dangers of this futuristic process
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of perspectives on implantable microchips. The first appeared on Jan. 30.
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 programs.
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.