Applied Digital Solutions (ADS) announced in March that it had filed for FDA approval of its tiny ID implant, VeriChip, and the Florida-based company performed its first commercial implant on three local children on May 10, promising “easy access of medical rec-ords.”
While both announcements were greeted with surprise, ADS had already revealed that it had received the patent rights for VeriChip’s prototype, Digital Angel—a miniature digital transceiver designed for implantation in the human body and powered electro-mechanically through muscle movement. Unlike other experimental implants created by competitors, ADS’s was intended not merely to identify but to send and receive data and, eventually, to be able to track the implantee using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology. For now, the sales hooks are “medical emergencies” and “identifying missing persons,” including soldiers in the field and corpses—particularly effective, given the nation’s post-September 11 mentality.
There have been many indications that “technology creep” would someday revolutionize our conceptions of what is personal and private for years, but legislators, in this information-based society, have been slow to sense the dangers of microchipping people.
Most of us probably can tick off a long list of programs that started out as voluntary, temporary, or “pilot projects” but eventually morphed into permanent mandates, sometimes with draconian ramifications: the income tax, Social Security numbers, annual auto-emissions tests, psychological screening for schoolchildren. Both the national ID card and various universal health-care schemes were rejected over just such fears of arbitrary and dehumanizing applications, but both are about to sneak through the back door via the ID implant.
By the time ADS mass markets Veri-Chip, bureaucrats will likely have scared young parents into microchipping their babies—right now, today, before your child gets swapped, stolen, kidnapped, into an accident, or lost! Will an “adult microchip,” like today’s beginners’ driver’s license, then become a rite of passage for teenagers?
Shortly before Christmas 1993, a program to identify pets through chip implants was launched nationwide. Veterinarians and humane societies promoted the new devices, which were (and still are) implanted by means of a painless injection under the animal’s skin. The pet chips provide only the basics—pet’s name, owner’s address, vaccination dates, and vet—all readable with hand-held scanners. But if your pet is gone, so is your microchip. How exactly does this chip improve on a collar or dog tag?
The pet program may have been less about finding Fido than about getting the bugs out of ID-implant technology. While data-collection techniques, consolidation, and cross-matching capabilities were exponentially expanding, the door was opened for the next logical step. In a 1993 speech entitled “Microchipped” (published as part of a book in 1994), I predicted the first human ID implant incorporating tracking and cross-matching capability to be a mere decade away.
Nine years later, Digital Angel is suddenly a big winner on the stock market. To attract investors, ADS has a website that hypes a variety of potential uses, from tamper-proof identifications to enhanced e-business security and the monitoring of serious medical conditions. ADS notes that the device can “be activated either by the ‘wearer’ or by the monitoring facility.”
Every news story missed that little fact. Most people would assume that the wearer and the purchaser are a “team,” working on the same side. But who will really have control, not only over your whereabouts but of your privileged information? Whether it is school, airport, and building security; “red flagging” your banking transactions; facial-recognition systems in public places; e-mail-intercept/recovery capability; laser scanners picking up cell-phone conversations; cameras mounted on the roadway; or computers logging everything from your urinary-tract infection to your rock-concert tickets, we are being acclimated to believe that, if we have nothing to hide, privacy is no big deal.
Meanwhile, ever-increasing advances in computer cross-matching dog us wherever we go—from census, motor-vehicle, tax, title, and insurance databases to school records. The result is a burgeoning information industry of data traffickers and “brokers,” licit and otherwise, all linking information to accommodate the needs of employers, credit bureaus, universities, police, corporate spies—and government. Not surprisingly, data-laundering has become a lucrative spin-off industry.
The student who divulges on a school questionnaire which magazines, modern conveniences, and medications are in his home, or the vacation spots most frequented by family members, has no idea that this “lifestyle data” can be cross-matched with responses relating to social attitudes, world views, religion, and politics.
At first, most analysts were interested in aggregate data to determine public-policy trends or to assess the results of advertising strategies aimed at specific demographic groups. But with government-mandated database consolidations, uniform codes, standardized definitions, and compulsory compatibility among local, state, and federal computers—ostensibly “to facilitate information-sharing”—it was only a matter of time before this technology targeted the individual.
The new generation of ID implants hold a sizable paragraph of information. That one paragraph, however, is also capable of being linked with other information systems, and search-engine technology is outstripping the best expectations of even the experts. More ominous, information thought to be anonymous is readily identifiable. The term “confidential,” in a legal context, has come to mean “need to know.”
A statistical model can be created from computerized information to predict, sometimes with stunning accuracy, future reactions and behaviors using information from a person’s past activities, ranging from responses on a survey to frequency of toll-free telephone usage to recurring trends in discretionary spending.
As Larry Ellison, chief executive officer of the software giant Oracle, explained in an interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, there are thousands of compatible databases that track and cross-reference generic information about people: their beliefs, family ties, friends’ and associates’ names, addresses, phone numbers, and aliases; political/civic clubs and associations joined; magazine and newspaper subscriptions; frequent shopping places; political campaigns and causes contributed to; how important a person is by region, state, or city; and criminal and medical histories, including potentially embarrassing information from long ago. Together, these can forecast a person’s future actions.
So where’s the abuse?
In 1995, the National Institutes of Health quietly provided a grant to the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic for a “Multi-site Multimodal Treatment Study of Children With ADHD.” Among the significant aspects of the ensuing legal case was that kids who had not been labeled with any disorder were discovered to have been given a battery of psychological tests without informed consent from parents, and, worse, the collected data had been mixed not only with students’ education records but with their medical records. Once caught, Western Psychiatric refused to share the information they had collected with parents, yet it was unable to prove that data on a particular child could not be retrieved at a later time, causing compensable harm. Might not insurance companies, potential employers, or even a political opponent find such information useful down the road (e.g., a child having once been referred to a psychologist)?
DNA microchipping and other implant technology have progressed in a similarly quiet manner, save a few occasional tidbits. For example, the Times of London reported in October 1998 that “[f]ilm stars and the children of millionaires [were] among 45 people, including several Britons . . . [who] have been fitted with chips (called the Sky Eye) in secret tests.”
Meanwhile, a barrage of mixed messages erodes our concept of privacy. Beepers, cell phones, key (“swipe”) cards, and passwords all make us aware of the need for personal security. Security, however, is not privacy. A person’s body and what one does with it (abortion, homosexuality, etc.) supposedly are sacrosanct and inviolable. On the other hand, if other people’s money or health are compromised by someone’s private behavior (say, smoking or drunk driving), then we are told that a person’s bodily functions are everybody’s business.
Insurance companies certainly think so. The Maryland Insurance Group (part of a Zurich, Switzerland-based conglomerate) sent policyholders a notice in 1994 announcing that it would collect information on “your character, habits, hobbies, finances, occupation, general reputation, health and other personal characteristics”; that it would, at its discretion, talk or write to “neighbors, friends, insurance agent and others who know you” as well as access “motor vehicle reports, court records, or photographs” and anything else that “may pertain to your mode of living, character . . . and personal characteristics.” Today, such globally accessible dossier-building is standard operating procedure.
More recently, the cloning debate has put a spotlight on geneticists, who are hot on the DNA/gene-mapping trail to head off genetic “mistakes” and diseases. The criminal-justice system wants biometric identifiers for both employees and criminals (apparently interchangeable distinctions since September 11). International proponents of biometric implant chips—Interpol, for example—use “global cooperation” to justify mass identification and tracking techniques.
The common thread, of course, is a compelling worldwide interest in collecting, tracking, and cross-referencing information on private citizens. Janlori Goldman, deputy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, saw the handwriting on the wall in 1991 when she commented that there is “barely a piece of information about people that isn’t used for far different purposes than it was initially gathered for [sic], and always without approval.”
Among the cybertech pioneers is Prof. Kevin Warwick of Reading University, working with Blackbaud Inc. (another American software giant) and a renown-ed British subsidiary software company. Warwick made the headlines in the summer of 1999 when he had a silicon chip transponder surgically implanted in his forearm. For a bemused media, he demonstrated his ability to switch lights on and off and to start and shut down computers and thermostats as he entered or left a room. A computer monitored his every move as he made his way among detectors scattered throughout his building. There was only one problem: The chip was unstable and had to be removed every few weeks, then reimplanted.
Warwick admitted that he missed the chip when it was removed. The Warwick experiments were short-range. The chip emitted radio waves through a mobile-phone network and beamed its location to a computer. A person could be located on a computer map from a few blocks away.
Short range, however, was good enough for what Warwick had in mind for tomorrow’s workers: He touted the business possibilities, particularly for companies with high labor costs. The implant, he said, was a relatively cheap means of keeping tabs on employees. “You can tell when people clock into work and when they leave the building,” he beamed. “You would know at all times exactly where they were and who they were with.”
Although Warwick acknowledged that most people would be “shocked” if companies asked their employees to submit to implants, he pointed out that many employees already carry swipe cards, which can serve as tracking devices. Warwick also suggested that submitting to an implant might be made a condition of being granted a gun license, since computerized background checks amount to virtually the same thing.
Anyone who owns an automobile or boat with GPS knows that satellite tracking is not short-range. The reason Warwick’s chip had to be removed frequently is that a GPS enhancement required two penlight batteries to power it for approximately 40 hours. This chip was postage-stamp-sized instead of near-microscopic and had to be made compatible with specific kinds of antennas.
By the time ADS was ready to go commercial with VeriChip in May, human chip implants were not science fiction anymore. In light of this year’s horrific child abductions/murders, there was, predictably, no shortage of volunteers. Who cared whether the chip was invisible or not? Improvements can be expected.
More portentous suggestions than Warwick’s have been made. The Fetal Treatment Center at the University of California, San Francisco, has connected implantable biotelemetry devices to unborn babies. Other specialists, such as Dr. Roy Bakay of Emory University are ready to install chip-to-brain implants.
Charles Ostman, a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Futures and science editor of Mondo 2000, believes implant-ing chips will become a routine process. “Neuroprosthetics are . . . inevitable,” he says. “Biochip implants may become part of a rote medical procedure. Interface with outside systems is a logical next step.”
Such ideas emerge at a time when the concept of parent licensing (really, “baby licensing”), first promoted by the American Eugenics Society (AES) in the 1930’s, is making a comeback. (Following the Nuremberg Trials, the AES changed its name to the “Society for the Study of Social Biology.”)
The notion of licensing people to bear children originally was floated by Dr. Franz J. Kallmann, a German psychiatrist and member of the Nazi Party, who argued before Hitler’s Ministry of the Interior in 1935 for the sterilization “of the mentally ill.” Kallmann relocated to the United States in 1936—probably because he was an ethnic Jew. Once he was safely ensconced at Columbia University, however, Kallmann continued his “psychiatric genetics” work, often extolling his former mentor, Ernst Rüdin, head of Hitler’s Racial Hygiene Program.
The American press sang Kallmann’s praises for 40 years. In 1964, the New York Times ran an admiring story citing his prediction that, unless something were done quickly, the birthrate among schizophrenics would eventually surpass that of the larger society, and the ranks of the mentally ill might soon “overbalance the population.” This led to American eugenicist Dr. Kenneth Boulding’s proposal to require “market licenses for babies,” with an emphasis on screening out parents thought “defective” or “unfit.” In November 1975, the renamed AES’s flagship publication, Social Biology, carried an article by Dr. David M. Heer enlarging upon the “Boulding Proposal.” In particular, Heer enumerated methods of “enforcement” for licensing parenthood. Dr. Carl Bajema followed in the Spring issue, calling for a waiver of restrictions for prospective parents who demonstrated “genetic superiority.” Bajema even recommended putting to death “unlicensed children who cannot be adopted.”
This is not ancient history: This was 1975.
Today, the products of permissive child-rearing make up the largest population of individuals labeled “mentally inferior”—learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, hyperactive, ADHD, etc. People holding politically inconvenient opinions and worldviews, but who have committed no crime, are also frequently saddled with psychiatric labels that suggest “unfitness.” Now here come cyber-techies promoting biochip implants and GPS tracking as a part of rote medical procedure.
What does the ID implant have to do with baby licensing? Under a new computerized initiative called the “Program Information Management System” (PIMS), social workers nationwide are encouraging expectant parents to sign a permission form at the hospital that allows agents to go into private homes to provide parenting training—up to 50 visits annually per family. While they are at it, these “experts” also collect medical and psychological information that can be linked to future written observations about family relationships—in effect, tracking each newborn’s development (as well as any attitudes) from infancy into their school and college years. But make no mistake: Their primary mission is to assess parental “fitness.”
When we place the PIMS project alongside such parent-unfriendly projects as Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic’s “Multi-site Multimodal Treatment Study of Children With ADHD,” we find some very troubling prospects. With the recent increase in crime among juveniles, computerized dossier-building, and the concurrent war on parents waged by schools and various government programs, we have a recipe for technological abuse. Microchip implants, used to track, monitor, and cross-match information, could greatly enhance political screening in the name of “parental fitness.” Even those who feel comfortable with the political and social winds today may not feel so warm and fuzzy tomorrow when they stop to think how fast society’s mores and priorities can change in just a few years with the right promotional packages and enough surveys.
Forget, however, about banning ID implants: They are already in the pipe-line. In June 1998, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory revealed its joint project with Motorola and Packard Instrument Company to commercialize, market, and mass-produce advanced biochips “and related analytical technologies.”
All that remains is selling people on the idea:
How’d you like to avoid waiting in lines for the rest of your life? Breeze through a checkout line like you owned the place? Watch lights snap on, open doors automatically, never have to show an ID, remember a password? You wouldn’t have to carry a wallet. Ever. Family and friends could find you if you were sick or unconscious. Click here!