By Niall McKay, Mon Jul 28 11:00:00 GMT 2003
A reference to the futuristic cartoon family the Jetsons, they are America's first family to have radio frequency identification chips implanted.
In August of 2000, Leslie Jacobs was watching TV with her 13-year-old computer buff son Derek when they saw a feature on Applied Digital Solutions a company that develops VeriChip, the world's first radio frequency identification (RFID) chip for humans. Leslie's husband Larry had been suffering from cancer and both her and her son had been to the hospital with him countless times. The VeriChip world, they thought, dispense with the need fill all those medical forms every time Larry was admitted.
"My son Derek, who even then at 13 was a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) immediately saw the possibilities," says Leslie Jacobs. "He thought that it would be a good idea if we all got chipped so if Larry was bought into the emergency ward that they would be able to access his medical records immediately."
So Derek pestered his Mom to call the company. "It took a bit of time but eventually we got through to the right person and we were chipped last May," says Mrs. Jacobs. "Now people call us the Chipsons."
It's a nice idea but one that is a little a head of its time. While Applied Digital Solution's VeriChip Corp. is allowed to sell the product as part of an augmented security system the Food and Drug Administration prohibits the company from selling VeriChip to the medical sector until it undergoes the usual rigorous medical approval process.
Currently the VeriChip is mostly marketed for security applications. "It can be used as an extra layer of security for building or banking access. The chip gives off an identification number which can be used in conjunction with a PIN number," says VeriChip Corp. spokesman Mathew Cossolotto.
The chips are about the size of a grain of rice are implanted just under the skin in simple procedure which is much like getting a flue shot. Each chip costs about $200 and the company charges a $10 monthly database maintenance charge. VeriChip emits a 125-kilohertz radio frequency signal that transmits its unique ID number to a scanner. It is a passive technology so only a reader or scanner can activate it. It pulls off the unique signature number from the chip and then accesses a computer database containing detailed information about the customer. It could, for example, be linked to a database that holds medical records detailing past history, allegories, or preferences.
However, critics point out that it could also be linked to insurance company databases, or be used to hold a criminal record or even marketing information. This may seem far-fetched but such ghoulish applications are not as outlandish as they first appear. According to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union new technology together with a relaxation of privacy legislation is giving rise to a surveillance monster.
"Scarcely a month goes by in which we don't read about some new high-tech method for invading privacy, from face recognition to implantable microchips, data-mining to DNA chips, and RFID identity chips," the report says. "The fact is, there are no longer any technical barriers to the creation of the surveillance society."
Indeed the ACLU has a point. RFID technology is increasingly used to ensure that people remain under house arrest or as an extra security measure to ensure that prisoners do not escape. For example, a company called Alanco Technologies produces a system called PRISM. With it inmates wear RFID transmitters in a tamper-proof wristband which broadcasts a signal every two seconds to readers throughout the building. Everybody is identified and tracked by a unique signal which is managed by a central computer database. Now, in general the people do not give a hang about the freedoms of convicted felons but there are proposals to extend similar RFID systems to tourists or migrant workers visiting the United States to ensure that they do not over stay their visas.
Still, there is a big difference between Alanco's PRISM system and VeriChip. In fact, there is some confusion regarding the VeriChip which after all simply states that this person is linked to that number in this database. We are still a long way from installing passive RFID chip readers in on every street corner so unless your are sitting with in a few feat of a reader the unique ID number can not be identified. Currently there are less than twenty people worldwide who carry the chip and most work for or with VeriChip or Applied Digital Solutions.
Furthermore, the VeriChip is often confused with another much more sophisticated piece of technology - namely a chip that can read vital statistics such as body temperature and broadcast GPS coordinates. Another Applied Digital Solutions subsidiary called Digital Angel Corporation is developing a GPS device for animals and humans. It's called a Personal Location Device or PLD. According to company spokesman to Mathew Cossolotto, it is still very much in the prototype stage.
The device is about about 2 1/2 inches in diameter by about 1/2 inch deep. It is still a little on the large side to be implanted. Currently, it comes in the wristwatch form factor. It is designed to record body temperature and broadcast GPS coordinates. Digital Angel as the name implies is designed to enable people to keep track of pets and loved ones. Indeed, DARPA has funded similar projects in the early 1990s so that US special forces and Air Force could keep track of personal who were had been captured or dropped behind enemy lines.
Still, privacy advocates can probably relax as we still have a ways to go before such chips gain widespread acceptance.
"It's a chicken and egg situation," says Mathew Cossolotto. "The chips are no good without the applications and the applications are useless without the chips. I don't know who the first person that bought a fax machine was but I am sure he was sitting until the second person bough their fax before he got his first fax. It just takes a little time."
Still, the company is working hard to ensure its technology becomes pervasive. It resells the VeriChip to companies in several Latin American countries and currently has a bus (known as the ChipMobile) traveling around major cities in the US chipping anybody who cares to pay the $10 a month subscription fee.
Niall McKay is a San Francisco-based writer who has written for the Financial Times, Wired Magazine, Salon, and the New York Times. He also contributes to National Public Radio's KQED FM radio in San Francisco. He can be reached at www.niall.org.