Implant Chip, Track People

It's 10 p.m. You may not know where your child is, but the chip does.

The chip will also know if your child has fallen and needs immediate help. Once paramedics arrive, the chip will also be able to tell the rescue workers which drugs little Johnny or Janie is allergic to. At the hospital, the chip will tell doctors his or her complete medical history.

And of course, when you arrive to pick up your child, settling the hospital bill with your health insurance policy will be a simple matter of waving your own chip — the one embedded in your hand.

To some, this may sound far-fetched. But the technology for such chips is no longer the stuff of science fiction. And it may soon offer many other benefits besides locating lost children or elderly Alzheimer patients.

"Down the line, it could be used [as] credit cards and such," says Chris Hables Gray, a professor of cultural studies of science and technology at the University of Great Falls in Montana. "A lot of people won't have to carry wallets anymore," he says. "What the implications are [for this technology], in the long run, is profound."

Indeed, some are already wondering what this sort of technology may do to the sense of personal privacy and liberty.

"Any technology of this kind is easily abusive of personal privacy," says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If a kid is track-able, do you want other people to be able to track your kid? It's a double-edged sword."

Tiny Chips That Know Your Name

The research — and controversy — of embedding microchips isn't entirely new. Back in 1998, Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University outside of London, implanted a chip into his arm as an experiment to see if Warwick's computer could wirelessly track his whereabouts with the university's building.

But Applied Digital Solutions, Inc. in Palm Beach, Fla., is one of the latest to try and push the experiments beyond the realm of academic research and into the hands — and bodies — of ordinary humans.

The company says it has recently applied to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to begin testing its VeriChip device in humans. About the size of a grain of rice, the microchip can be encoded with bits of information and implanted in humans under a layer of skin. When scanned by a nearby handheld reader, the embedded chip yields the data — say an ID number that links to a computer database file containing more detailed information.

Building a Built-in Digital Guardian

Keith Bolton, chief technology officer for ADS, says that VeriChip is only the beginning.

According to Bolton, the company has already started experimenting with combining the Verichip with another ADS product called Digital Angel. That pager-sized device allows caregivers and parents to monitor the health and whereabouts of seniors and children through the use of space-based Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.

"In the migration path, those two products that can be bundled together," says Bolton. The resulting product would be about the size of an American quarter coin and offer an improved way of monitoring patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease, for example.

See How an Embedded Locator Chip Would Work

Safety Against Terrorists?

And the interest in testing embedded chips has been steadily increasing — especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Dr. Richard Seelig, a former surgeon but now a medical consultant for ADS, became the first to embed a VeriChip in his arm and hip on Sept. 16. He says his decision to become a willing guinea pig came when he saw World Trade Center rescue workers scrawl information on their skin as an identifying marker should they get hurt in the wreckage.

"There is a clear need for a more secure [form of] identification," says Seelig. "This was another useful application for VeriChip and to move the process along and [help] evaluate the possibility, I had the chips inserted."

And Seelig isn't the only one who feels this way.

According to ADS' Bolton, about 50 people have already signed up with the company to become part of the VeriChip experiments. Some volunteers, such as the Jacobs family in Boca Raton, Fla., believe that the technology will provide for a much needed additional security and safety.

TechTV: A Profile of the Jacobs Family

"What it does for me is give me a peace of mind because it speaks for you when you can't," says Leslie Jacobs, a journalist in Boca Raton, Fla. Her 14-year old son, Derek, had first heard of the VeriChip on a local newscast and had persuaded Leslie and her husband that this new chip technology would be the wave of the future. And after looking into the technology, she believes that her son was right. "I really think this could help make the world safer in the future," she says.

Chipping Blocks

But making the world safer or allowing missing children to be found easily won't happen anytime soon. In addition to waiting for FDA approval — a process that may take years — some experts point to many other obstacles that would need to be cleared.

Most embedded chip designs, such as ADS's VeriChip, are so-called passive chips which yield information only when scanned by a nearby reader. But active chips — such as the proposed Digital Angel of the future — will need to beam out information all the time. And that means designers will have to develop some sort of power source that can provide a continuous source of energy, yet be small enough to be embedded with the chips.

Another additional hurdle, developing tiny GPS receiver chips that could be embedded yet still be sensitive enough to receive signals from thousands of miles out in space.

In addition to technical hurdles, many suspect that all sorts of legal and privacy issues would have to be cleared as well.

Tien of the EFF is concerned that while embedded chip technology may be beneficial in locating lost loved ones, he worries that it could be easily abused. "Once this thing is in you, what's the guarantee that not just anyone won't be able to track you?" asks Tien.

Tien is also concerned that the "benefits" of being able to track people clandestinely may be forced upon others. "If it works here — finding lost loved ones — so then we'll use it for released prisoners and sex offenders," says Tien. "If the choice is offered to a person to either stay in prison for another year or to go on parole as long as they have this monitoring chip in them, then that's not really much of a choice in my opinion," he says.

And while the EFF isn't openly condemning embedded chip technology, "Our critique of proposed technology solutions — whether they be chip implants or national ID cards — is that people will abuse them," says Tien. "That's the fundamental issue of human nature."

Crawling Toward a Race of Cyborgs?

Such qualms over privacy, whether real or overblown, are likely to keep any mass "chipping" from happening in the near future. And that may be the ultimate problem for the technology overall.

"It's a chicken and egg problem," says Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, a research firm in Menlo Park, Calif. "Hospitals and ambulances aren't going to invest in new detectors [for these chips] until people start using the chip, but people aren't going to use these chips until there's a wide availability of readers," he says.

Still, Saffo and others don't doubt that one day we may become a race of cyborgs — part man and part machine.

"We put all sorts of implants in [our bodies] today," says Saffo. "If we have metal hips, it only makes sense to have chips in, too."