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Electronic Design

Implantable RFID May Be Easy, But That Doesn't Mean It's Ethical

While researching this issue's Technology Report on RFID, I recalled the first article I'd written about "chipping" humans with RFID tags back in 1996. Implantable RFID chips for pets were making news back then, and it seemed inevitable to consider chips for kids as well.

My article called for a discussion of the ethics of tagging people, and what a firestorm it started! I don't think I've ever received so many letters to the editor. Of course, I fully recognized the Big Brother scenarios facilitated by RFID. Many readers even considered the implantable RFID chip to be the "mark of the beast," as described in the Bible's Book of Revelations.

It's a decade later and three years since the Food and Drug Administration approved VeriChip's implantable chips for human beings. In fact, more than 250 hospitals and more than 1000 doctors have adopted VeriMed tags. Some of these doctors have even been "chipped" themselves. When chipped people are brought to emergency rooms, the chip broadcasts their ID and provides access to their medical records.

In December, the National Stroke Association recognized implantable RFID's potential to play "a critical role in assisting medical professionals" in responding to stroke-afflicted patients. But despite the FDA's approval, the controversy remains, especially involving children. Beyond the philosophical and even theological concerns, many critics question whether chipping would really protect lost or kidnapped children.

A network of animal shelters can pick up and identify lost animals and make sure they return home safely. But implantable tags don't have any GPS capability, so they only would work when chipped kids are brought into an emergency room. If readers are widely adopted at hospitals, then there is some logic to thinking that missing children could be recovered if they are brought in for medical care. But even so, the odds that chipped yet missing children would be brought into such hospitals are very slim.

For now, RFID tags are being used to track kids via wristbands or ID cards, not implants. They're being used, sometimes in conjunction with GPS, at some theme parks, schools, and daycare centers. The tags also help keep track of infants, as a third of all U.S. hospitals and birthing centers now use VeriChip's infant protection systems, according to the manufacturer.

But even RFID badges for kids are controversial. The school district in Sutter, Calif., cancelled a student RFID name badge program after the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the ACLU of Northern California, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation interceded to end the program.

"Monitoring children with RFID tags is a very bad idea. It treats children like livestock or shipment pallets, thereby breaching their right to dignity and privacy they have as human beings," said C├ędric Laurant, Policy Counsel with EPIC.

Those who fear the "slippery slope" of RFID as the tool of Big Brother are working to ensure that it can't be mandated for tagging or tracking. Last year, Wisconsin passed a law making it a crime to require an individual to be implanted with a microchip.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people think chipping is the height of cyber convenience and fashion. Nightclubs in Spain made headlines last year when they invited patrons to chip themselves for admittance and to pay for drinks.

The New Yorker recently profiled Mikey Sklar, a "post-modern" artist and technician who implanted his hand with an RFID chip to control his computer, door locks, and other home electronics. Sklar's home RFID deadbolt is based on a design from chipped author Amal Graafstra's book RFID Toys, a DIY guide to the modern conveniences that chipped users can enjoy.

Despite the chip in his hand, or maybe because of it, Sklar also has turned his attention to RFID privacy issues. According to Sklar, "One easy way to subvert the technology is to build a homemade Faraday cage around your RFID tags." On his Web site,, he describes how to rip out a pocket from a pair of jeans and replace it with a cotton-like fabric with enough conductive materials to block most RF frequencies. I guess he'll need a pair of Faraday gloves as well!

Ultimately, though, people who want to use RFID to go cardless and keyless could could skip over the implants and go straight to biometric controls. The body has a plethora of unique identifiers, from hand geometry to facial thermal prints. All of these features are our natural identifiers, and no additional (or apocalyptical) marking is required.

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