Keeping up with technology is tricky. Sometimes, you find information in a press release; other times, you ascertain the full measure of what is going on through obscure legal and scientific papers, last-minute legislative “riders,” and seemingly inconsequential blurbs in the foreign press. Even as my piece on implantable identification tags was going to press (“Implanted IDs: Click Here!” Vital Signs, October 2002), rumors were emerging from Great Britain.
Applied Digital Solution’s primary human guinea pig and proselytizer, cybernetics researcher Kevin Warwick of the United Kingdom’s Reading University, fell into hot water. Electronics expert Bernard Albrecht called the General Med-ical Council, various social-service agencies, two district councils, and eventually the police to file assault charges against Warwick for conducting unethical medical and surgical procedures on volunteers. His favorite targets were the children of parents seeking peace of mind, for reasons of health or security.
When the authorities failed to bring charges, Albrecht appealed to the university’s guidelines on research, alleging misrepresentation of a technological device. In the ensuing uproar, the press dubbed Professor Warwick “Captain Cyborg.” None of the charges against Warwick have yet been pursued.
A plethora of details emerged that revealed a great deal more about the stake that various corporations—and government—have in making human monitoring and tracking succeed. In addition, there are clearly aspects of ADS’s “research initiative” that have yet to be revealed to the public.
In at least one of its products, ADS was rumored to have rigged something that required neither a ground-based network nor triangulation and to have reduced cell-phone components to such a size that they could be implanted under the skin or in muscle tissue. The point of the journalists crying “fraud” was to force an explanation.
The answer came in the form of sales. Dr. Peter Zhou, the chief scientist who developed the ADS implant and president of DigitalAngel.net, an ADS subsidiary, boasted: “Your doctor will know [about a health] problem before you do. . . . We have received requests daily from around the world for the product.” One interested party was the U.S. Department of Defense, which apparently made inquiries through a contractor.
Journalists, commentators, and law-yers began to uncover fascinating projects, all incorporating aspects of people-tracking and monitoring, including the use of the jawbone as an antenna and the adaptation of a silicone gel as a protective covering for implants and as an injection-delivery agent.
They also noted developments in “nanotechnology,” the integration of microelectronics and molecular biology to create organic systems capable of “breeding” complex solutions to problems. The Clinton administration provided $227 million in fiscal year 2001 alone for research under the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
Journalists also reported on the development of a smorgasbord of implantable and external monitoring/tracking gear already, or nearly, on the market, including “the Babysitter,” a jelly-bean-sized microchip implant that is placed under a child’s collar bone so parents can track his location; “the Constant Companion,” a tracking device for senior citizens; and “the Invisible Bodyguard,” to protect you from kidnappers when you are out of town. The “Micro-Manager,” the “Personal Private Eye,” the “Maximum Security Guard,” and the “Border Patroller” require no explanation. Then there is the coming “decoder ring,” an implant placed in the human eye that is read by a retinal scanner, and the “genegg,” designed for implantation in the belly button.
The rationalizations offered for these invasive products are even more fascinating than the technology itself. Tom Turner, senior vice president of marketing and business development for WhereNet, believes the benefits to “a parent looking for a child at a theme park” or to “a student [needing to feel] safe as he walks across campus far outweigh privacy” and abuse concerns. WhereNet has already licensed its technology to companies that make pager-like devices worn as bracelets or carried in a pocket or purse. Customers include a water park in Denver and the Universities of South Florida (Tampa) and South Alabama (Mobile). Turner’s target markets include cruise ships, gated communities, and shopping malls.
Brendan Fitzgerald, the president of Microgistics (which makes WalkMate, a device used by college students to contact campus police), argues that, “If you were working in a hazardous industrial environment, you would want to know that you could push a button and have someone help you if you need help.”
“Safety First” is a slogan that is difficult to argue with. But carrying a panic button is considerably different from “transparent surveillance.” As pacemakers, artificial knees and hips, and implants (temporary and permanent) for the delivery of pain medications and other drugs become more common, many Americans increasingly view ID implants as similar advances. Just as automated, multi-technology readers like smart cards claim to offer freedom from toll booths and long lines, Digital Angel and similar implant devices promise peace of mind. “Ideally,” the ADS patent states, “the device will bring . . . an increased quality of life for those who use it, and for their families, loved ones, and associates who depend on them critically.”
In an interview with WorldNet Daily two years ago, Dr. Zhou dismissed religious and ethical objections to implant research.
ADS has sunk millions into the Digital Angel project and understandably does not want bad press now. Zhou explained that, just like the cell phone, Digital Angel
will be a connection from yourself to the electronic world. It will be your guardian, protector. It will bring good things to you. . . . We will be a hybrid of electronic intelligence and our own soul.
Which brings us to the real question: Who will be able to demand that a chip be implanted in another person? Parents? The criminal-justice system? Immigration authorities? Employers?
Katharine Mieszkowski, in an article entitled “Microchip Children” in the November 2000 issue of Salon, states the obvious: “The potential for abuse is so ludicrously high that it’s almost impossible to overstate.” She cites George Getz, communications director for the Libertarian Party, who noted that:
No government has ever forced anyone to have a drivers license, [but now] try getting along without one, when everyone from your local banker to the car rental man to the hotel operator to the grocery store requires one in order for you to take advantage of their services; that amounts to a de facto mandate. If the government can force you to surrender your fingerprints to get a drivers license, why can’t it force you to get a computer chip implant?
ADS opened the floodgates when it acquired, as part of its patent rights to Digital Angel in 1999, the right to sublicense the development of specific applications to other entities and to seek out joint-venture partners to develop, expand, and market the technologies. This changed the original focus of Digital Angel from banking and electronic purchases to emergency location and medical monitoring. ADS’s “joint venture” with Professor Warwick moved the device into the realm of tracking and monitoring employees, criminals, and whomever else might be deemed in need of monitoring. ADS anticipates a “potential global market . . . exceeding $100 billion.” ADS even received a special “Technology Pioneers” award from the World Economic Forum for its contributions to “worldwide economic development and social progress through technology advancements.”
Mieszkowski also quotes Chris Hables-Gray, a professor, self-proclaimed “cyborgologist,” and the author of Cyborg Citizen, who observes that “Technology is continually trumping [our] constitutional guarantees.” He calls for legal protections against the misuse of chips before they become commercially available:
Citizens could ask for a law that makes it a crime to put these into a person without their [sic] permission, and to forbid, under any conditions, the government to put these into . . . citizens. . . . [W]e do not have to accept every new technology.
Increasingly, however, we simply accept new technologies by default. Scientists, inventors, and investors can scarcely resist the temptation to push the boundaries of possibility—often, of course, with the best of intentions. Understandably, men desire technologies that will save time or improve quality of life. But know-ledge, once obtained, cannot simply be un-learned—a lesson as old as Adam and Eve.
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