Thursday, February 14, 2008

Human ID Chips Get Under My Skin

As many may know, Senator Joe Simitian's bill - SB 362 - that banned the forced subcutaneous implanting of RFID's by an employer in employees passed the California state legislature and was signed into law last year.

This Business Week article on Human ID implanted chips raises another set of concerns (part 2 of a four part series on RFID here for part one that takes an industry perspective) about what kind of future we have in store for us:

David Holtzman writes:

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.

I have found the first two parts of this series so good, I will post parts 3 and 4 as they come out, as well. Click to read the rest of this article in its entirety.

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