Idea of implanting ID tags raises
There's not a lot of middle ground on the subject of implanting
electronic identification chips in humans.
By Michael Kanellos:Staff Writer, CNET News.com
August 23, 2004
Advocates of technologies like radio frequency identification
tags say their potentially life-saving benefits far outweigh any
Orwellian concerns about privacy. RFID tags sewn into clothing or even
embedded under people's skin could curb identity theft, help identify
disaster victims and improve medical care, they say.
Critics, however, say such technologies would make it easier for
government agencies to track a person's every movement and allow
widespread invasion of privacy. Abuse could take countless other forms,
including corporations surreptitiously identifying shoppers for
relentless sales pitches. Critics also speculate about a day when
people's possessions will be tagged--allowing nosy subway riders with
the right technology to examine the contents of nearby purses and
"Invasion of privacy is going to be impossible to avoid," said
Katherine Albrecht, the founder and director of Consumers Against
Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, or CASPIAN, a watchdog
group created to monitor the use of data collected in the so-called
loyalty programs used increasingly by supermarkets. Albrecht worries
about a day when "every physical item is registered to its owner."
The overriding idea behind tagging people with chips--whether
through implants or wearable devices such as bracelets--is to improve
identification and, consequently, tighten access to restricted
information or physical areas.
But on top of civil liberties and other policy issues, such
technologies face visceral objections from many people who frown on the
idea of being implanted with tags that can track them like migrating
tuna. Complaints have led several companies to abandon plans to use
RFID technologies in products, much less in human bodies.
The concept of implanting chips for tracking purposes was
introduced to the general public more than a decade ago, when pet
owners began using them to keep tabs on dogs and cats. The
notion of embedding RFID tags in the human body, though, remained
largely theoretical until the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when a
technology executive saw firefighters writing their badge numbers on
their arms so that they could be identified in case they became
disfigured or trapped.
Richard Seelig, vice president of medical applications at
security specialist Applied Digital Solutions, inserted a tracking tag
in his own arm and told the company's CEO that it worked. A new
product, the VeriChip, was born.
Applied Digital formed a division named after the chip and says
it has sold about 7,000 of the electronic tags. An estimated 1,000 have
been inserted in humans, mostly outside the United States, with no
harmful physical side effects reported from the subcutaneous implants,
the company said.
"It is used instead of other biometric applications," such as
fingerprints, said Angela Fulcher, vice president of marketing at
VeriChip, which is based in Palm Beach, Fla. The basic technology comes
from Digital Angel, a sister company under the Applied corporate
umbrella that has sold thousands of tags for identifying pets and other
VeriChip makes 11-millimeter RFID tags that are implanted in the
fatty tissue below the right tricep. When near a scanner, the chip is
activated and emits an ID number. When a person's tag number matches an
ID in a database, the person is allowed to enter a secured room or
complete a financial transaction.
So far, enhancing physical security--controlling access to
buildings or other areas--remains the most common application. RFID
chips cannot track someone in real time the way the Global Positioning
System does, but they can provide information such as whether a
particular individual has gone through a door.
Latin American customers are looking at both technologies for
security purposes, which partly explains why some of VeriChip's early
clients included Mexico's attorney general, as well as a Mexican agency
trying to curb the country's kidnapping epidemic, and commercial
distributors in Venezuela and Colombia.
The value of these technologies was underscored recently by a
CNET News.com reader who wrote from Puerto Rico to inquire about their
development. In her e-mail, Frances Pabon said she hopes that RFID or
GPS technologies can be used for her husband, who must travel through
neighborhoods in San Juan that are infested with crack dealers.
"I think safeguarding his safety doesn't necessarily violate his
privacy," she wrote. "And if I am made to choose between keeping him
safe versus keeping him private, I'd rather keep him safe and then
change private data such as credit cards, bank accounts, etc., after."
Safety has been a primary driver in some U.S. applications as
well. An Arizona company called Technology Systems International, for
example, says it has improved security in prisons with an RFID-like
system for inmates and guards. The company's products came out in 2001
and are based on technology licensed from Motorola, which created it
for the U.S. military to find gear lost in battle.
TSI's wristbands for inmates transmit signals every two seconds
to a battery of antennas mounted in the prison facility. By
examining the time the signal is received by each antenna, a computer
can determine the exact location of each prisoner at any given time and
can reconstruct prisoners' movements later, if necessary to investigate
Since the technology was installed at participating prisons,
violence is down up to 60 percent in some facilities, said TSI
President Greg Oester, who says the wristbands are designed for the
TSI, a division of security company Alanco Technologies, has
installed the system in four prisons and will add a fifth soon.
"Inmates know they are being monitored and know they will get
caught. The word spreads very quickly," Oester said. "It increases the
safety in facilities."
In a California prison that uses the TSI technology, an inmate
confessed to stabbing another prisoner 20 minutes after authorities
showed him data from his radio transmitter that placed him in the
victim's cell at the time of the stabbing, Oester said. A women's
prison in the state has begun a pilot program to test whether the
technology prevents sexual assaults.
Conversely, at an Illinois prison, Oester said, convicts have
pointed to this sort of data as a way to prove that they weren't
involved in prison incidents. Guards have similar tags, embedded in
pagers rather than wristbands, which set off an alarm if they are
removed or tampered with.
Tagging hospital patients...and alumni?
Beyond law enforcement, the technology is drawing interest from
a variety of industries that have pressing security needs. Companies
that operate highly sensitive facilities, such as nuclear power plants,
are looking at TSI's technology.
Hospitals in Europe and the United States are also experimenting
with inserting tags in ID bracelets. The Jacobi Medical Center in New
York, along with Siemens Business Services, has launched a pilot
program that will outfit more than 200 patients with radio bracelets.
This technology is designed to enable various health care
professionals to obtain patient information such as X-rays and medical
histories from a database securely and more quickly. The system
will also use antennas to track individuals as they walk about the
hospital and send alerts if a patient begins to collapse. Other pilot
systems are being tested specifically to monitor patients with
As such tagging systems become more widely known, some
industries that hadn't been expected to use the technology are
considering innovative applications of it. A South Carolina firearms
maker, FN Manufacturing, is evaluating the technology for use in "smart
guns" equipped with grip sensors that would allow only their owners to
In a less violent but practical application, Ray Hogan of
Princeton University's alumni association has contemplated distributing
RFID bracelets among meeting attendees to track attendance at events
that have multiple components. The technology would let organizers see
which programs attendees find most valuable by virtue of how long they
stay. Like others, however, Hogan says privacy issues may well keep the
idea from becoming a reality.
When such technologies are employed, they can be even more
effective if implanted in the body. Supporters and critics both say
RFID tags under the skin would invariably increase the volume and
quality of personal data, with the benefit of, at the very least,
reducing the margin of error for misidentification in the event of a
The problem, detractors say, is that the vast quantities of
accumulated data would be vulnerable to theft and abuse. They cite
historical practices of retail establishments, which for years have
listened in on customer conversations and viewed consumer
behavior on remote cameras to improve sales. Supermarkets
routinely collect data about individual shoppers' purchases and buying
habits through "loyalty programs," along with credit card and
electronic banking transactions.
Even random individuals could spy on those with tags, because
today's RFID technologies do not yet have the processing power to
encrypt information. "I don't see how you can get enough power into
those things" to encrypt data, said Whitfield Diffie, a fellow and
security expert at Sun Microsystems.
Some consumers have described scenarios in which a hacker could
extract a person's identification number with an RFID reader, create a
chip with the same number and then impersonate them. But even if such
chip forgery were possible, alerts would probably be sounded as soon as
a system detected that the same person was in two different places at
Still, implanting RFID chips could vastly increase the potential
for police surveillance of ordinary citizens. Conceivably, every wall
socket could become an RFID reader that feeds into a government
Critics contend that if tagging gets out of control, the day
will eventually come when the cops will be able to trace junk thrown in
a public trash can back to the person who tossed it.
"Do you want the people in power to have that much power?"
Albrecht asked rhetorically. "The infrastructure obstacle has been
overcome. It is called electricity and the Internet."