Chipping Away at Freedom


The Future of Shopping

In these days of "big brother", where through technology and otherwise the privacy interests
of individuals from all walks of life are being ignored or marginalised,
it is imperative that statutes explicitly protecting these rights be strictly observed.

- Stanley Spoorkin

by Rana Foroohar with Jonathan Adams in New York and Kay Itoi in Tokyo

Antoine Hazelaar has a chip on his shoulder - or rather just beneath the skin of his left arm.  It's a piece of silicon the size of a grain of rice, and it emits wireless signals that are picked up by scanners nearby.  Ever since the 34-year-old website producer had the chip implanted in his arm, he's enjoyed VIP status at Barcelona's Baja Beach Club.  Instead of queuing up behind velvet ropes, Hazelaar allows the bouncer to scan his arm, and strolls right in.  If he wants a drink, the bartender waves an electronic wand that deducts from the 100 Euro tab on Hazelaar's chip.

Such sci-fi clubbing is made possible by Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, technology - tiny digital chips that broadcast wireless signals.  RFID tags are cheap and small enough to be disposable, and they're getting cheaper and smaller by the day.  Retail stores are beginning to use them as glorified bar codes, putting them on cases of bananas or crates of Coke so they can keep track of their inventory.  The technology has the potential to transform our relationship to the objects around us.  In theory, stores could dispense with checkout counters - instead, you'd grab items off the rack or shelves and walk out the door, while an RFID reader takes note of the items and takes the money right out of your e-wallet.  Your clothes could tell your washing machine what settings to use.  "RFID could help give inanimate objects the power to sense, reason, communicate and even act," says Glover Ferguson, chief scientist for the consulting firm Accenture.  The prospect is exciting, but it raises troubling questions about the invasion of privacy.

For now, businesses see it as a way to save money and improve service.  Big groceries, department stores and other retailers around the world are asking suppliers to put RFID tags on shipments of goods.  Staff will know exactly where items are and when they came in.  Customers will never have to leave the store empty-handed because items will never run out - wireless signals will alert staffers to dwindling supplies of diapers or soup.  What's more, RFID will help combat theft and counterfeiting, problems that cost businesses $500 billion a year.

For some retailers, RFID is a way to provide a more seamless shopping experience.  British retail giant Marks &Spencer is currently tagging men's suits in several London stores as part of a test. When you buy a size 42, the stockroom - alerted by the tag - sends up another.  Metro's Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany, is putting tags on individual items.  Better not steal a razor - its RFID tag will warn security.  Pick up a bottle of Pantene shampoo, and a promotional film plays on a nearby screen.  The cream cheese can tell staffers when it's gone off.  Wincor Nixdorf and Texas Instruments are developing a system that suggests accessories to clothing items.  In Prada's New York store, if you hold a dress near a monitor, you'll see models wearing it on a runway.

As the Baja Beach Club trial shows, RFID can tag people as well as goods.  Some hospitals are using RFID bracelets on newborn babies and elderly patients with dementia.  Children in one Japanese cram school wave RFID cards to alert their parents that they've arrived.  Amusement parks in the United States are issuing RFID badges that light up to let people know when it's their turn on the roller coaster.

Privacy implications remain a big obstacle.  The fear is that companies or governments could use the tags as a means of surveillance.  "Supermarket cards and retail surveillance devices are merely the opening volley," says Katherine Albrecht, founder of the US-based privacy group Caspian.  "If consumers fail to oppose these practices now, our long-term prospects may look like something from a dystopian science-fiction novel."  Proponents counter that RFID tags transmit for only a few metres, and the data can be encrypted or deactivated once a product leaves the store.  Nevertheless, Caspian and other watchdog groups have won concessions from retailers.  Wal-Mart and Benetton will only use the tags on pallets, not on individual items, and Metro has gotten rid of RFID-enabled loyalty cards.  Utah now requires clear labeling of an RFID-tagged product; a bill in California would ban retailers from using RFID to collect information about consumers.

In any case, ubiquitous chipping is years away.  The cost of RFID tags will have to drop from 20¢ each to 5¢ or less if they're to grace trillions of consumer items.  Also, the signal doesn't pass through liquid or metal, which makes it tough to tag a can of soda or a 9-volt battery.  And people may not like the idea of being surrounded by tiny transmitters sending out electromagnetic radiation.  Undaunted, RFID chipmaker VeriChip is looking for big banks and credit-card firms interested in offering RFID-based e-wallets.  If successful, they would truly give shouldering up to the bar for a drink a whole new meaning.

Source: 7 - 14 June issue © Newsweek, Incorporated

horizontal rule

Humans Receive Identification Chips

The 4th Amendment protects the individual's privacy in a variety of settings.
In none is the zone of privacy more clearly defined than when bounded by the unambiguous physical dimensions of an individual's home -
a zone that finds its roots in clear and specific constitutional terms:
"the right of the people to be secure in their houses shall not be violated."

- John Paul Stevens

Derek Jacobs, 14

Eight people will be injected with silicon chips, making them scannable just like a jar of peanut butter in the supermarket checkout line.

The miniature devices, about the size of a grain of rice, were developed by Florida company Applied Digital Solutions.  They will be targeted to families of Alzheimer's patients - one of the fastest growing groups in American society - as well as others who have complicated medical histories.

"It's safety precaution," explained Nate Isaacson, 83, who has Alzheimer's.  The retired building contractor will leave his Fort Lauderdale doctor's office Friday as a cyborg, a man who is also a little bit of a computer.  The chip will be put in Isaacson's upper back, effectively invisible until a hand-held scanner is waved over it.  The scanner uses a radio frequency to energise the dormant chip, which then transmits a signal containing an identification number.  Information about Isaacson is cross-referenced under that number in a central computer registry.  Emergency room personnel, for instance, could find out who Isaacson is and where he lives.  They'd know that he is prone to forgetfulness, that has a pacemaker and is allergic to penicillin.

"You never know what's going to happen when you go out the door," said Isaacson's wife, Micki.  "Should something happen, he's never going to remember those things."

Applied Digital, maker of what it calls the VeriChip, says it will soon have a prototype of a much more complex device, one able to receive GPS satellite signals and transmit a person's location.  This prospect is deeply unsettling to privacy advocates, no matter how voluntary the process may initially appear.

"Who gets to decide who gets chipped?" asked Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre.  "Parents may decide that their kids should be implanted, or maybe their own ageing parents.  It's an easier way to manage someone, like putting a leash on a pet."

Applied Digital says it has a waiting list of 4,000 to 5,000 people who want a VeriChip; they plan to operate a "chipmobile" that visits Florida senior citizen's centres.  An estimated 4 million people nationally have Alzheimer's - and more than 10% of them live in Florida.

Not Just for Those with Alzheimer's

Jeffrey and Leslie Jacobs and their teenage son Derek, whose "chipping" will be a national media event, don't have problems with dementia.  The Boca Raton, Florida family has a mixture of ailments and interests: Jeffrey, 48, has been treated for Hodgkin's disease and has suffered through a car crash, a degenerative spinal condition, chronic eye disease and abdominal operations - he takes 16 medications.  His injuries have forced him to quit his dental practice.  Son Derek, 14, is allergic to certain antibiotics.  Mostly, though, he's a computer buff who considers the procedure "nifty".  As for Leslie, 46, she's merely hoping to feel more secure in an insecure world.

A third group readying themselves for the simple outpatient procedure Friday are executives of Applied Digital, a publicly traded company based in Palm Beach.  Even their publicist is doing it.  Getting chipped is easy.  Making it more useful than a piece of body art will be harder.

"There are a lot of practical issues here, as well as ethical and privacy issues," said Mark Pafford, associate executive director of the Alzheimer's Association's Southeast Florida chapter.  "If it were me, I would use something tried and proven, like a ID bracelet or a necklace that has an 800 number.  This VeriChip seems like it would inhibit someone being returned home in a timely fashion.  Who knows how to look under someone's skin?"

Applied Digital says nearly all major hospitals in the West Palm Beach area will be equipped with the scanners.  Yet St Mary's Medical Center, a major trauma center approached at random by a reporter, said no one had contacted that hospital.

Isaacson's family says he has a bracelet.  He also has a wallet with an ID.  "The VeriChip is more of a 'God forbid,'" said Sherry Gottlieb, Isaacson's daughter.  "You feel you have to have it, but hope you never need it."

Applied Digital is charging $200 for a chip, plus a $10 monthly fee to store the information.  As the first patients, Isaacson and the Jacobses are getting their VeriChips for free, but that's the only financial consideration they are receiving.

Isaacson's doctor, while agreeing to perform the insertion, has some qualms about it.  He consented to be interviewed but asked his name not be revealed until Friday.  While protests against the VeriChip have been minimal, neither the doctor nor Applied Digital are eager to see demonstrations.  A few religious groups say the chips are "the mark of the Beast" referred to in the Bible.  "I think this is going to be the cutting edge of the future, because quick information saves lives," Isaacson's doctor said.  "I get calls 24 hours a day informing me a patient's had a stroke or a heart attack and is in the hospital.  I have to go to my office, get the chart, and then go to the hospital.  All that takes time, while the patient is being treated with limited information."

And yet this family practitioner doesn't see himself chipping any youthful patients.  While he believes the procedure is safe and the chip can always be removed, he's worried about long-term liability.  "You do something to a young person, you may be responsible for years afterwards.  He may be carrying this chip for 70 or 80 years."

Long before then - by the end of the year, in fact - the next generation of devices will be tested.  An embedded chip with GPS capabilities will be slightly larger than a quarter and require actual surgery to implant.  Unlike the VeriChip, it also will require Food and Drug Administration approval.  That will slow down its US introduction.

"We believe we've solved the battery issue, which leaves the question of an antenna that can transmit through skin tissue," said Keith Bolton, Applied Digital's chief scientist.  The devices will be powered by lithium ion batteries, which can be charged remotely from outside the body.  Applied Digital says it has received considerable interest in the VeriChip from both commercial and government sources in Brazil and Mexico, and expects the embedded system to be big wherever there's a big threat of kidnapping.  The prospect of such sales is no doubt one reason Applied Digital stock, which traded as low as 11¢ in the last year, recently quadrupled to about $2.  (Corporate insiders were sellers of the stock before the recent run-up, which might indicate a lack of faith in the company's viability.)  The stock fell 6¢ to $2.01 on Wednesday on Nasdaq.  Applied Digital is heavily indebted but says it will have actual earnings this quarter before interest, taxes and depreciation are accounted for.

On Friday, the Jacobses had the chips implanted in their arms in Boca Raton.  The insertion took about a minute under local anæsthesia.  "It's been really easy and I feel a lot better that I have it," Jeffrey Jacobs said after the implant.

The Food and Drug Administration had said in April that it would not regulate the implant as long as it contains no medical data.  Company officials said they were free to proceed because the implant contained identification numbers that correspond to personal medical information in a separate database.  The FDA didn't consider the implant to be a medical device - regulation would be needed if medical records were stored to guard against storage of outdated records.  The chips used by the Jacobs family contain only telephone numbers and information about previous medications.

Company officials hope to eventually include more extensive information - they said it would be particularly valuable for those who suffer from Alzheimer's or others with difficulty providing medical information on their own.

VeriChip is expected to sell for about $200.  A scanner used to read information contained in the chip costs between $1,000 and $3,000.  The data can be printed out.  The chip could also be used as a security tool which has stirred debate over its potential use as a device to track people or invade privacy but Jacobs and his family brushed aside these arguments.  Anyone can be tracked through the Internet and e-mail, credit cards and cellular phones, they say.

You can find Applied Digital Solutions at

Source: Los Angeles Times 9 May 2002 by David Streitfeld, staff writer and Associated Press Saturday 11 May 2002

A sad postscript...

Teen With Medical Microchip Dies in Florida

Boca Raton - A teen engineering prodigy who gained national attention in 2002 when he and his family received identification chip implants on live television was killed in a motorcycle accident, authorities said.  Derek Jacobs, 18, lost control of his motorcycle early Saturday and crashed into a guardrail and a pole, the Palm Beach County sheriff's office said.  He was wearing a helmet.  "It was just a crazy accident or a bump or something, and he was catapulted," said his mother, Leslie Jacobs.  "He had, of course, potential, because he was brilliant, and he was just a wonderful son.  He wanted to make a difference in the world."  Derek was set to get his engineering degree this year after only two years at Florida International University.  He wanted to be a neurosurgeon, his mother said.

At age 12, Derek became certified by Microsoft as a systems engineer.  He was qualified to run corporate computer networks.  Two years later, he and his family had identity chips implanted on live television.  They were the first family to get VeriChip IDs, made by Applied Digital Solutions.  Derek pushed his parents to look into the chips as a way to help store medical information for his father, who suffered a host of health problems, including cancer.

Source: Associated Press 1 October 2006

I view it as inevitable, really, that infants will be implanted with tracking chips at birth in the future.  There are a lot of people out there who "want to feel more secure in an insecure world" - as if a chip will somehow help.  Maybe voluntary prefrontal lobotomy for the insecure would be better.  Of course a secondary industry of removing chips from those who don't want to be tracked will spring up.  Chip your pets!  That way, you'll know they've been flattened and you can no longer convince yourself they've been "picked up" by some heretofore petless pet-lover and are now being stuffed full of ground beef.  Wives will know when their husbands say they're at work - but are instead with Elsie from the typing pool at the Holiday Inn.  (Also see Yearning to Be a Nobody? further on in this section for a vision of a time when chips have changed humanity.  Or seeOn Travelling, Passports and Social Security Numbers for observations on creeping distrust and non-privacy.)

horizontal rule

An Update on This "Chip of Fools"

Florida Firm Seeks to Microchip Americans

by Laura MacInnis

Washington - A Washington forum debated on Friday the benefits and hazards posed by a new way of identifying people with a microchip implanted under their skin to replace conventional paper identification.  The heated debate at the National Academies, a non-profit think-tank advising the government on matters of technology and science, focused on the threat to individual privacy versus the convenience of switching to a chip.

Implanted microchips have long been used in the animal kingdom, to track wildlife and to help pet owners recover their lost animals, but the idea of using them on humans has sparked fierce criticism from scientists and privacy advocates alike.  "We have absolutely no data about this particular product and about the implications over the long term if Americans are chipped," Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said.

Applied Digital Solutions Incorporated says its glass capsule the size of a grain of rice, injected into forearms and other fleshy body parts, could help authorities find missing persons and speed up medical diagnosis treatment.  The VeriChip, a scannable device worn under the skin and encrypted with personal information like medical records and emergency contacts, was unveiled last year in Florida.

So far about 20 people have been "chipped," including an entire family in Florida.

"I can't feel them at all," said Richard Seeling, an Applied Digital executive who has implanted two microchips into his right forearm to test the product.  "Most of the time I forget they're there until someone asks about it."  Seeling said the chips were both painless and safe but scientists at the National Academies said too little was known about the device and warned it could pose health risks like infections and immunity disorders for bearers.

The US Food and Drug Administration ruled in October it would not regulate the device so long as it was not used for medical purposes such as diagnosis.  This left Applied Digital free to market the chip for personal identification and security, for instance locating missing children or identifying car accident victims.  "I do think there could be beneficial uses, particularly for Alzheimer's patients, but on a large scale this is essentially a system of control," Rotenberg said.

Privacy advocates worry the microchip could spell the end of anonymity in the United States, particularly if authorities began requiring people to wear them to meet conditions of parole, employment or border crossings.

Seeling said each chip costs about $200, and that scanner devices needed to read the data would be targeted for sale to police, hospitals, schools and other agencies across the United States.

Source: Reuters 15 November 2002

horizontal rule

Policing Kids 24/7

by Jennifer Walcott

Using high-tech products, parents can instantly find out where a child is or what he's doing on the computer.  But what does this do to the parent-child relationship?

In this high-tech era, when new electronic gizmos are unveiled almost every day, the term "parental controls" is taking on a whole new meaning.  Besides limiting children's access to certain websites, parents can now keep tabs on the Internet sites they surf, read the instant messages and e-mails they send, and even delegate the task of monitoring screen time with a device they install in Junior's computer.  But that's not all.  The growing business of child surveillance now extends into the offline world, thanks to new GPS devices - including cellphones, wristwatches, and even a surgically implanted chip - that enable adults to track down kids almost anywhere.  Adults who use these tools insist they provide a sense of security in today's world of Amber alerts, terrorist warnings, and online predators.  Some even go so far as to say it would be neglectful not to use them.  But many people warn that tracking devices can create big problems by eroding trust between parents and children.  They ask, Are the benefits worth the risk?

"What we are doing [with these tools] is diminishing our anxiety but increasing the odds that kids will want to do the wrong thing because they deeply resent their parents' mistrust," says family therapist Alvin Rosenfeld.  As for the safety argument, Dr Rosenfeld doesn't buy it.  "It's astonishing the amount of anxiety in our society.  Most abductions are by relatives, and online predators really don't come along that often.  But when these things happen, the media focus on it so much that parents become terrified."

The first to object to such child-surveillance devices, as one would assume, are often those being watched.  Recently, one 10-year-old girl fired off this e-mail to spy-software consultant Joshua Finer: "I came across your website, and I think you are a freak!  You're breaking the rules of privacy!"  But most kids haven't a clue.  According to Mr Finer, the majority of parents who use spy software do it in stealth mode.  Of the 20 million American children who access the Internet, about 50% of them are "being protected by Internet safety software," he says.  Of those, 75% have filtering software and 25% spy software.  C T O'Donnell is one parent who favours the use of these products.  The father of two teens and president of KidsPeace, a national children's crisis charity, he feels strongly about parents informing their children they are looking over their shoulders and telling them why: "It's my job as a parent to protect you."

If parents are going to keep track of a child's whereabouts and activities, it's best to be open about it, child therapists agree.  Even then, they say, the use of spy software and other such devices can weaken the parent-child bond.  "It all comes down to respect and trust," says Rosenfeld.  If a child has done nothing to challenge a parent's trust in him, there's little reason to use the products, he feels.  "If children prove themselves unworthy of being trusted, that's different."  For his own kids, Rosenfeld believes in using what now seems almost old- fashioned: cellphones.  His daughter is a new driver, so having a cellphone enables her to let her parents know when she's about to get on the road and when they can expect her home.

A study by the Yankee Group of Boston found that among 11- to 18-year-olds, 56% own or use a cellphone.  Also, 55% of parents say cellphones provide an added layer of security in case of an emergency.  But Rosenfeld isn't about to plunk down extra cash for a cellphone that includes a GPS locator so he can track his daughter's whereabouts at all times.  Others find this extra feature invaluable - for younger teens anyway.  When Nicky Pratt, a stay-at-home mom in Garden City, New York, got GPS phones for her kids, the oldest - her 17-year-old son - refused to use it.  And she didn't push it.  "I can't blame him," she says.  "I wouldn't have wanted that at his age.  But he does have to check in with me."  His younger siblings, on the other hand, thought the phones were cool.  Now when they drop by a friend's home after school, they don't have to phone home since Mom can check her own GPS phone to see exactly where they are.  "My 13-year-old son never was great at remembering to call," Ms Pratt says, "so this keeps me from worrying.  Let's face it," she adds, "the world we live in is not the nicest of places."

In his research on kid-locating devices, her husband, Tom, came across the wristwatches that feature not only a built-in GPS device but also buttons for calling home or the police.  "They seemed bulky to me, and it was too easy to call 911," he says.  "Besides, I liked the idea of putting everyone in the family on the same network."  Those watches, marketed for kids ages 4 to 12, are locked onto children's wrists with a key, which parents keep.  "It's like they're criminals," says Rosenfeld.

Also controversial among parenting pros is spy software.  Depending how much they want to know about what their children are up to online, parents can choose from among a wide variety of programs.  They include IamBigBrother, which specialises in recording all incoming and outgoing instant messages; SpyAgent, which records all correspondence, whether it be instant messages, e-mails, or chat-room exchanges; and eBlaster, one of the most sophisticated and aggressive, which immediately forwards incoming and outgoing e-mails to a parent as they are sent.  Xanovia also offers the ability to spy on webcam activity as well as to capture and compress screen shots.  Instead of installing such intrusive programs, many parents opt for filtering software, which may deny access to unwanted websites, block pop-up or pop-under windows, and shut out many unwanted e-mails.

And then there are those timers that can be installed in computers.  Rick Cohen, inventor of EyeTimer, says parents are drawn to his product because it "takes them out of the role of being the bad guy."  Instead of Mom or Dad shouting "time's up," the computer does it for them with 10-, 5- and 1-minute warnings before shutdown.  "I realise it's not a substitute for being a good parent," says Mary Rable, a mother of 3, "but you have to pick your battles, and this is one that's been eliminated for me."  She allows her 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to spend 45 minutes each on the computer per day, and she relies on EyeTimer to enforce that rule.

Keeping kids from zoning out for hours in front of a computer is one of parents' greatest concerns today, says Mr Cohen.  Studies show that children spend an average of 35 hours per week in front of a screen, whether it be a computer or a TV.  But some quibble with the idea of delegating important negotiations to an electronic device.  Others go beyond that, questioning the long-term effects of all of this virtual parenting.

"I'm concerned," says Wendy Simonds, an assistant sociology professor at Georgia State University, "that subsequent generations are going to take all this surveillance for granted and stop thinking about all the technology that surrounds them and what it means.  "Adults don't want to micromanage kids' lives," she adds, "but I understand the temptation to do that because this technology exists."  It all goes back to the need for community, says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles therapist who studies families and technology.  "When I was growing up, neighbours were always watching us, and we didn't want to mess up because somebody might tell [our parents].  That sense of community no longer exists because no one wants to get involved, so parents are forced to use technology."

Source: The Christian Science Monitor 28 January 2004

I was very closely monitored as a child.  My mother read my diary, went through my bureau drawers and closets and restricted my movements.  I learned to be secretive, but not how to develop self-control - that came much later.  Some worry is good - you learn what is important and what is not.  I find these new technologies scary.  And no, using them doesn't automatically make you a better parent - it reveals that you are not currently a great one.

horizontal rule

State Would Outlaw Mandatory Microchip Implants

by Bill Christensen

RFID microchips implanted in humans?  Who would think of such a thing?  Here are a few examples:

bulletVeriChip RFID Tag Patient Implant Badges Now FDA Approved (
bulletUS Company Implants Chips in Workers (
bulletRFID Tags Proposed to Halt Blackmarket Cadaver Trade (

You're not even safe from being 'chipped when you're dead.  But you'll be safe in Wisconsin, if State Representative Marlin Schneider, Democrat - Wisconsin, gets his bill passed.  A proposal moving through the Wisconsin Legislature would prohibit anyone from requiring people to have the tiny RFID chips embedded in them or doing so without their knowledge.  Violators would face fines of up to $10,000.

Verichip Corporation, based in Florida, has federal approval to implant these rice grain-sized RFID chips in people.  The procedure is very similar to getting a shot; typical sites for implantation are the back of the hand and the upper arm.  Wisconsin's former governor Tommy Thompson supported the idea of chip implantation for medical identification reasons; he even joined Verichip's board of directors.  However, he hasn't gotten the chip himself.  If this bill passes, Wisconsin would be the first state to ban mandatory microchip implants.

The idea for this story was found here ( via Slashdot (

Source:  from 25 April 2006

horizontal rule

For IT-related articles on snooping, usage, the future, e-diaries, piracy, flickers, cyborgs, browsing, trends, jokes, philosophic agents, artificial consciousness and more, press the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Information and Technology section.

Back Home Up Next