Chipping Away at Privacy Fears
Oct 29, 2004 5:00 AM PT
This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a microchip that can be implanted in humans to provide access to medical records. Privacy regulation advocates were predictably horrified, but the chip does not create the privacy crisis some might imagine.
The VeriChip, made by Applied Digital Systems, is an implantable radio frequency identification device (RFID). RFID chips listen for a radio query and respond by transmitting their unique code. In the case of medical records, the code is compared with a database that will have the patient's critical information, such as allergies and other medical conditions. Aside from this use, RFID is being deployed in many other instances as well.
Wal-Mart and other companies are planning to use RFID to replace product bar codes, thereby increasing efficiency, reducing theft, and cutting costs. Drivers using automated toll cards are already using the technology, as are pet owners who have "chipped" their pets in case they get lost.
Though RFID technology can save money, time and lives, when it comes to implanting it in grandma's arm to make sure doctors know exactly what to do when she shows up unconscious at the hospital, the "creepy factor" arises. Privacy regulation advocates argue that implanting chips in humans will bring about an Orwellian state, and some apocalyptic types see it as the "mark of the beast."
While the issue is a rhetorical magnet, there are reasons why this private use of technology does not in itself threaten privacy and may, in fact, help to protect it in the long run.
First, no one is forcing people to get chipped. Implanting the rice-sized chip is a voluntary action, and the product is provided by a private company. As long as government is not forcing anyone to get the chips, claims of privacy violations are about as compelling as arguments that reality TV violates the privacy of its participants.
If so-called privacy advocates want to get serious about protecting privacy, they should direct more of their attention toward preventing the forcible collection of biometric data by government, such as the plan outlined in proposition 69 on the California ballot. Prop 69 would forcibly take DNA samples from anyone arrested on suspicion of committing a felony, even if the charges are dropped or the person is found innocent.
According to the ACLU, more than 50,000 Californians get arrested each year but are never charged with a crime. This is a case in which the efficiency of technology is unfortunately tempting lawmakers to skip important traditional protections, like the idea that one is innocent until proven guilty.
Once the government takes biometric data, it will always have it, but the implantable RFID chip can be easily removed -- just ask patrons of the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona where the microchip is used as a debit card to pay for drinks. The voluntary and temporary nature of the chip is why a privacy implosion is not imminent, but the fact that it's being used in the private sphere may have the effect of protecting privacy in the future.
In 1984, George Orwell's Big Brother was so powerful because he was the only one with the ability to control technology. Fortunately, that is not the society in which Americans live, and one of the ways to prevent this scenario is to make sure there is a robust private market for any surveillance technologies.
When government tries to watch the people, the people can watch government right back. If principles of liberty should begin to falter, and government does try to make the chips mandatory, people will know how to remove them and perhaps even disable the frequency.
Any technology is a tool which can be used either for good or evil. RFID cards, both the implantable and non-implantable kind, offer enhanced efficiency and greater convenience, but that same tracking feature could also be used by a malevolent government as a means to monitor citizens. Fortunately, America does not currently face that threat, making it foolish to oppose the technology and all the benefits it can bring.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.