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Where’s Jimmy? Just Google His Bar Code

RFID Implants

Tech enthusiasts and futurists think implantable radio chips, such as those embedded in Amal Graafstra's hands, could mean safety, security and convenience. But civil libertarians are concerned about privacy.Amal Graafstra

Scientists tag animals to monitor their behavior and keep track of endangered species. Now some futurists are asking whether all of mankind should be tagged too. Looking for a loved one? Just Google his microchip.

The chips, called radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, emit a simple radio signal akin to a bar code, anywhere, anytime. Futurists say they can be easily implanted under the skin on a person’s arm.

Already, the government of Mexico has surgically implanted the chips, the size of a grain of rice, in the upper arms of staff at the attorney general’s office in Mexico City. The chips contain codes that, when read by scanners, allow access to a secure building, and prevent trespassing by drug lords.

In research published in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, Taiwanese researchers postulate that the tags could help save lives in the aftermath of a major earthquake. "Office workers would have their identity badges embedded in their RFID tags, while visitors would be given temporary RFID tags when they enter the lobby," they suggest. Similarly, identity tags for hospital staff and patients could embed RFID technology. 

“Our world is becoming instrumented,” IBM’s chairman and CEO, Samuel J. Palmisano said at an industry conference last week. “Today, there are nearly a billion transistors per human, each one costing one ten-millionth of a cent. There are 30 billion radio RFID tags produced globally.”

Having one in every person could relieve anxiety for parents and help save lives, or work on a more mundane level by unlocking doors with the wave of a hand or starting a parked car -- that's how tech enthusiast Amal Graafstra (his hands are pictured above) uses his. But this secure, “instrumented” future is frightening for many civil liberties advocates. Even adding an RFID chip to a driver’s license or state ID card raises objections from concerned voices.

Tracking boxes and containers on a ship en route from Hong Kong is OK, civil libertarians say. So is monitoring cats and dogs with a chip surgically inserted under their skin. But they say tracking people is over-the-top -- even though the FDA has approved the devices as safe in humans and animals. 

“We are concerned about the implantation of identity chips,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the speech, privacy and technology program at the American Civil Liberties Union. He puts the problem plainly: “Many people find the idea creepy.”

“RFID tags make the perfect tracking device,” Stanley said. “The prospect of RFID chips carried by all in identity papers means that any individual’s presence at a given location can be detected or recorded simply through the installation of an invisible RFID reader.”

There are a number of entrepreneurial companies marketing radio tracking technologies, including Positive ID, Datakey and MicroChips. Companies started marketing the idea behind these innovative technologies a few years ago, as excellent devices for tracking everyone, all the time.

Following its first use in an emergency room in 2006, VeriChip touted the success of the subdermal chip. "We are very proud of how the VeriMed Patient Identification performed during this emergency situation. This event illustrates the important role that the VeriChip can play in medical care," Kevin McLaughlin, President and CEO of VeriChip, said at the time.

“Because of their increasing sophistication and low cost, these sensors and devices give us, for the first time ever, real-time instrumentation of a wide range of the world's systems -- natural and man-made,” said IBM's Palmisano.

But are human's "systems" to be measured? 

Grassroots groups are fretting loudly over civil liberties implications of the devices, threatening to thwart their  development for mass-market, human tracking applications.

“If such readers proliferate, and there would be many incentives to install them, we would find ourselves in a surveillance society of 24/7 mass tracking,” said the ACLU's Stanley.

The controversy extends overseas, too. David Cameron, Britain's new prime minister, has promised to scrap a proposed national ID card system and biometrics for passports and the socialized health service, options that were touted by the Labour Party.

"We share a common commitment to civil liberties, and to getting rid -- immediately -- of Labour's ID card scheme," said Cameron according to ZDNet UK.

These controversies are impacting developers. One firm, Positive ID, has dropped the idea of tracking regular folks with its chip technology. On Wednesday, the company announced that it had filed a patent for a new medical device to monitor blood glucose levels in diabetics. The technology it initially developed to track the masses is now just a “legacy” system for the Del Ray Beach, Fla., firm.

“We are developing an in-vivo, glucose sensing microchip,” Allison Tomek, senior vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, told FoxNews.com. “In theory it will be able to detect glucose levels. We are testing the glucose sensor portion of the product. It will contain a sensor with an implantable RFID chip. Today’s patent filing was really about our technology to create a transformational electronic interface to measure chemical change in blood.”

Gone are the company’s previous ambitions. “Our board of directors wants a new direction,” says Tomek. “Rather than focus on identification only, we think there is much more value in taking this to a diagnostic platform. That’s the future of the technology -- not the simple ID.”

The company even sold off some of its individual-style tracking technology to Stanley Black and Decker for $48 million, she said.

These medical applications are not quite as controversial as the tracking technologies. The FDA in 2004 approved another chip developed by Positive ID’s predecessor company, VeriChip, which stores a code -- similar to the identifying UPC code on products sold in retail stores -- that releases patient-specific information when a scanner passes over the chip. Those codes, placed on chips and scanned at the physician’s office or the hospital, would disclose a patient’s medical history.

But like smart cards, these medical chips can still be read from a distance by predators. A receiving device can "speak” to the chip remotely, without any need for physical contact, and get whatever information is on it. And that’s causing concern too.

The bottom line is simple, according to the ACLU: “Security questions have not been addressed,” said Stanley. And until those questions are resolved, this technology may remain in the labs.