By Jane Black
Meet the "Chipsons" -- Jeffrey, Leslie, and Derek Jacobs. This spring, pending trial-run approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the South Florida family plans to be the first in the country to have the VeriChip, a tiny radio-frequency device about the size of a grain of rice, implanted in their bodies. Each $200 chip will carry a unique identification number and critical medical information. Should any member of the family be hospitalized, doctors would run a scanner over the chip to retrieve important medical-history details.
The Jacobs first heard about VeriChip when it was featured on NBC's Today show. Derek, a 14-year-old technology whiz -- and the youngest person ever to become a Microsoft certified engineer -- was intrigued. His mother, Leslie, was skeptical, but eventually she was won over to the idea that the VeriChip could help save lives. Her husband, Jeffrey, is a cancer survivor who takes 10 different medications regularly. Plus, young Derek is allergic to many common antibiotics. "In an accident, minutes and seconds mean everything. The chip speaks for you when you can't," Leslie says.
ON THE TRAIL.
The Jacobs aren't the only ones lining up to "get chipped," as VeriChip maker Applied Digital Solutions (ADSX ) is calling the process. Sao Paolo minister and Brazilian lawmaker Antonio de Cunha Lima is angling to be the first person to receive an ADS chip implant in South America. His VeriChip won't hold just medical information -- it would include a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device that might help save his life in another way. Brazil has the fourth-highest number of kidnappings in the world behind Colombia, Mexico, and Indonesia. In 2001, Sao Paolo saw 267 kidnappings.
Not everyone is as excited about the VeriChip as Jacobs family and de Cunha Lima. For some, implanted chips are frighteningly reminiscent of the bugs placed inside half-man/half-machine Cyborgs on Star Trek. (Remember: Resistance is futile!) Some religious conservatives claim the technology is the "mark of the beast" prophesied in Revelation 13. And privacy advocates warn that the technology could be abused. "You always have to think about what the device will be used for tomorrow," warns Chris Hoofnagle, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.
The "slippery slope" argument seems a bit tenuous to me, at least for now. You can't stop technology just because it might someday, somewhere, be abused. And the VeriChip does have near-miraculous potential. An Alzheimer's patient, for example, would benefit if medical information were available to that person immediately in a scannable format. Soldiers or journalists might well choose to have their whereabouts tracked on a GPS during a war. A VeriChip might have helped prevent the death of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan.
I also don't buy that mandatory implanted IDs are imminent, as some people have suggested. Indeed, after a brief flirtation with the idea of national ID cards in the wake of September 11, the public's support has waned. According to a Mar. 13 survey from research firm Gartner Inc., 41% of Americans oppose a national identification system, while 26% back the idea.
It's worth pondering, though, how a technology like VeriChip could skid out of control. Here are two scenarios I see as both realistic and dangerous -- and how regulators might prevent them.
One natural use of a chip with tracking capabilities would be to monitor parolees and ex-convicts. Already, 27 states use some type of satellite surveillance to track former prisoners. Parolees wear a wireless bracelet and carry a small box, called a portable tracking device, that allows law enforcement to track them. ADS has already signed a deal with the California Corrections Dept. to track the movements of parolees with a wearable tracking device called the Digital Angel. You could even argue that because the device is hidden, it offers the wearer more privacy, not less.
So far so good. But now imagine that same chip being used by a totalitarian government to keep track of or round up political activists or others who are considered enemies of the state. In the wrong hands, VeriChip could empower the wrong people.
ADS Vice-President Keith Bolton insists that VeriChips will be used only in voluntary situations. But the company gives up control of how devices are used when they're sold to customers. The U.S. government might consider regulating the international sale of the VeriChip tracking device in much the same way it regulates the sale of arms to rogue states.
What about tracking children? Many parents would love to know where their kids are all the time so that they can better protect them. John Walsh, the host of the popular TV crime show America's Most Wanted, is an advocate. In 1981, his six-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped from a Sears store in Florida and later killed. On Mar. 4, Walsh told a caller on Larry King Live that tracking chips are a "brilliant idea."
"I wish someone would develop it because, No. 1, time is crucial when a child is missing, and you could locate them by the chip," he said. "And even if you weren't lucky enough to locate them, finding the body is crucial for two things: the ending of the search and helping with the prosecution of the case. So I hope that somebody develops that in my lifetime."
The desire to protect children is noble indeed. But at what price? Is keeping children safe worth diluting their freedom? And would children really be "chipped" voluntarily? Minors would have little say over whether they want a tracking chip. Overprotective -- or worse -- parents could make their children virtual prisoners. Parents who want to track kids with a VeriChip should be required to get approval from a judge. A child caught in the fray of an angry custody battle might be given a temporary chip, but only under the supervision of a jurist.
Both scenarios remain a long way off. ADS is still in the midst of producing a chip that contains GPS capability and, for the moment, says it has no plans to market the tracking chip in the U.S. Instead, it's working on a plan to distribute VeriChip scanners to hospital emergency rooms and is working with medical-device makers to bundle the chip with such items as pacemakers and artificial limbs.
A LITTLE RESISTANCE.
The company's aggressive push into South America demonstrates that it sees a market. Already, ADS has deals in three Latin American countries to provide VeriChips for security and authentication. Initial orders exceed $300,000 with anticipated first-year revenue approaching $2 million. ADS President Scott Silverman believes that the global market for security chips will be worth $450 million by 2007.
If he's right, now's the time to put guidelines in place to ensure that a VeriChip is implanted only with an individual's consent and that this powerful technology doesn't fall into the wrong hands. For the Jacobs family, VeriChips have real potential. For the rest of us, a little resistance might not be so futile.
Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online. Follow her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht