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Just Another Chip in the (Privacy) Wall

An electronic database implanted under the skin can assure speedy and proper medical carebut is it worth it?
November 18, 2004

You can almost see the ads now: Imagine a bright future with a chip in your arm!

Went to the supermarket, but left the wallet at home? No problem! Flex your bicep and the smiling cashier passes a scanner over your arm. Voilaidentification chip recognized! Problem solved. Your credit is good with us!

Passed out during a sunrise jaunt on the top of Haleakala Mountain in Maui? Fret not! The hospital down below is on the case. Arm please. Scanner! The readout on the computer is fine. Just a little altitude sickness.

Key to the safety deposit box weighing you down? Chuck it! Next time youre in the bank, give the teller a friendly waveand watch the doors open to greet you!

After decades as the stuff of sci-fi novels and anime movies, the age of chipped humans is finally a reality. Last month, following two years of review, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of an implantable chip for medical applications. Each Verichip is the size of a grain of rice and contains a unique, 16-digit radio frequency ID. Linked to a database, that ID tag can call up a variety of informationfrom medical records to financial information.

Not surprisingly, the technology is causing its share of controversy. Civil liberties groups are calling this the end of privacy. Religious groups are calling it the number of the beast. Down on the shores of Delray Beach, FL, Applied Digitalthe company behind the Verichipcalls it a goldmine.

Like a lot of new technologies, the Verichip happened rather by accident. Fifteen years ago, a company called Digital Angel developed implantable identification chips for the purpose of tracking companion pets and cattle. But the idea was nothing to moo at. Last year, 800,000 animal chips were sold in the United States for $55 to $70 apiece30 percent more than in 2002.

If the chips could identify animals, why not a human being? This thought occurred to Richard Seelig, a surgeon in New Jersey, shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Seelig watched with horror as New York City firemen scrawled their social security numbers in black ink on the forearmsjust in case they were to be burned beyond recognition in the inferno. Familiar with Digital Angels work, Seelig voluntarily implanted himself with a radio frequency identification chip. And the race to bring it to the rest of the world was on.

According to Angela Fulcher, spokesperson for Applied Digital, the human chip works in essentially the same manner as the animal chips. The chip is contained inside a cylindrical transponder, a glass tube 11 millimeters in length and 2.1 millimeters in diameter. Along with the chip is an antenna coil, which picks up and transmits the identification number to a scanner. The Pocket Reader, an existing handheld scanner created by Applied Digital, reads the radio frequency ID number when its passed over the skin within a space of three or four inches.

Unlike the animal version, the human chip is coated with Biobonda porous polypropylene sheathe that connects to surrounding tissues. The chip is implanted, via a proprietary Verichip inserter, in a fleshy area such as the bicep. Based on our experience at with microchips and animals, Fulcher says, we see the lifespan at being 10 years.

Although newly approved by the FDA, Verichips are already in use outside the United States. In total, an estimated 1,000 people have been implanted thus far. In Mexico, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the countrys attorney general, was implanted with a chip to provide secure access to government documents. In Barcelona, a beach club is injecting partiers with ID chips in lieu of hand stamps.

Despite the announcement of the FDA approval, however, such frivolous implants may soon be second guessed. Organizations have criticized Applied Digital for not adequately disclosing the FDAs finding of Verichips risks. A group called the Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, or Caspian, obtained a letter from the FDA to Applied Digital dated October 12, and posted it on the Web. The letter cites several potential risks to health associated with the device, including adverse tissue reaction, migration of the implanted transponder, electromagnetic interference, electrical hazards, and incompatibility with magnetic resonance imaging.

In addition to medical concerns, privacy advocates lament the potential abuses of implantable IDs. The outcry stems from the proliferation of radio frequency identification in products and badges. The San Francisco Public Library is trying to put ID chips in all of its books. In Virginia, the Department of Motor Vehicles is considering putting chips on every drivers license. The Ross Correctional Facility in Chillicothe, Ohio is running a pilot program that will track prisoners using chipped badges.

Ostensibly, the idea is to provide a kind of DNA for merchandise (and inmates), a unique identifier that can track where and how products are distributed. But questions raised by implantable chips only complicate the mattersparticularly in light of the increased use of surveillance in the workplace. I see implantable chips as the wave of the future, says Frederick S. Lane III, author of The Naked Employee: How Technology Is Compromising Workplace Privacy.  Lane says The problem is that it gives employers access to so much information that they get to call the shots as far as whats innocuous.

And the battles could intensify if, as some fear, the devices can be used in conjunction global position satellites. Fulcher says Applied Digital has in fact developed a prototype of an implantable personal location device, and has already obtained the intellectual property. Bringing such technology to market, Fulcher says, is a multimillion dollar conversation. At the moment, were focusing on our current technology. If the right partner came along, however, that might be of interest.

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