A Chip in Your Shoulder
Should I get an RFID implant?
Last month, the FDA approved an implantable, rice-grain-sized microchip for use in humans. The tiny subcutaneous RFID chip, made by a company called VeriChip, is being marketed as a lifesaving device. If you're brought to an emergency room unconscious, a scanner in the hospital doorway will read your chip's unique ID. That will unlock your medical records from a database, allowing doctors to learn about your penicillin allergy or your pacemaker.
That all sounds great, but could chip implants be used for something more sinister? Scott Silverman, the CEO of VeriChip's parent corporation, acknowledges that RFID injections aren't an easy sell. In fact, the company's own research reveals that 9 out of 10 people find the whole thing creepy.
Nothing makes privacy lovers and conspiracy theorists blanch like people rolling up their sleeves to get injected with tiny electronic devices. But fears of an Enemy of the State-like government tracking system overlook the fact that RFID chips can only be read at very short range. Will the chips let the FBI and National Security Agency watch implantees on some super-secret radar screen? Not likely. Could some stalker hobbyist hide a dozen RFID scanners around your neighborhood and track you from his garage? Possibly.
VeriChip's biggest human-chip market is Mexico. Eighteen members of the attorney general's staff were implanted with a chip in order to control access to a new government facility. * Building security isn't the biggest part of VeriChip's south-of-the-border sales pitch, though. Mexico's kidnapping wave—the country's 3,000 abductions a year are second only to Colombia worldwide—has led VeriChip to partner with the National Foundation for the Investigation of Lost and Kidnapped Children. So far, 1,000 Mexican citizens have voluntarily had RFID chips implanted.
The idea of using RFID gear to thwart kidnappers betrays a fundamental misunderstanding—or a deliberate misrepresentation—of how the technology works. An RFID implant is useful for tracking within a controlled area like a warehouse—"Where's widget No. 4,343?"—but not so useful for the kind Tommy Lee Jones does in The Fugitive. The RFID readers now on the market have a maximum range of about 30 feet. To monitor kidnappings in progress, Mexico would need to install RFID readers in every building, office, store, and street corner.
Silverman concedes that the company's Mexican distributor may not have tried very hard to dispel the notion that VeriChips have GPS capabilities, which would be required for real remote tracking. VeriChip's parent company says a subdermal GPS device is now in development. But until a GPS implant becomes reality, implanted RFID chips will come in handy mostly in identifying dead bodies—that is, assuming kidnappers have the decency not to dig the chips out of their victims' arms. There are implementation problems with that fantasy RFID medical scheme, too. Once you've been chipped, you'll have to wait for VeriChip to connect its database—containing your medical records—with each hospital's individual system. By the time we get a national medical database, you'll probably have died of natural causes.
Maybe you shouldn't trust RFID to stop a kidnapping or to save your life in an emergency. Perhaps a more realistic suggestion is to use RFID implants to replace the tracking bracelets now imposed upon those who a) aren't trusted to be in the right place at the right time; and b) aren't given much of a choice: kids (at theme parks like Fort Lauderdale's Wannado City and Legoland in Denmark), the elderly, and prisoners. Though injection is unpleasant to think about, subdermal devices are far harder to remove—and, thus, far more reliable—than an external bracelet. And what about the lighter side of chip injection? Patrons of Barcelona's Baja Beach Club now pay for drinks via a system that links their VeriChip implants to their credit cards.
Any potential revolution in human tracking or mundane convenience comes with a fundamental insecurity. A scanner operating at the right wavelength can read an RFID chip. That means that any hobbyist can just buy an RFID reader and use it to keep tabs on the chip-implanted people that happen to walk by.Here's a list of RFID readers that can plug into various handheld computers—the 125 kHz readers, including this $425 model, would pick up a VeriChip. Models like this 2-inch-by-1-inch 125 kHz reader could be hidden quite easily. It wouldn't be hard for a tech-savvy stalker to rig his scanner to activate a camera whenever it detected an RFID chip. By logging the times that your implant was scanned, he could easily track your comings and goings
You could make your RFID chip unreadable by putting a blocking device like Mylar fabric or a metal plate between the chip and the reader. RFID chips could alsobe made to transmit their information in encrypted form, but VeriChip hasn't announced any plans to do so. Until it does, it might be best to keep RFID chips outside your epidermis. And a special message for all you kids out there: If your parents insist on microchip implantation, just make sure you've got some Mylar armbands lying around the house.
Correction, Dec. 9, 2004: This piece originally stated that 160 members of the Mexican attorney general's staff were implanted with RFID chips. While Applied Digital Solutions, the company that makes the chips, has circulated the 160 figure, a spokesperson for the Mexican attorney general's office now says that only 18 staffers received chip implants. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Josh McHugh is a contributing editor at Wired.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.