Saturday, September 1, 2007

Human-Implanted RFID - Chips Ahoy?

Giving privacy a shot in the arm, the California Senate passed a bill prohibiting employers from requiring their employees to have RFID microchips implanted under their skin. These are the same type of chips you've probably already implanted in your dog or cat. The State Assembly had previously passed the legislation.

One company already has FDA permission to sell chips for implant in humans, and apparently 2,000 people have had this done. There's also a company in Cincinnati that requires its employees to have them if they work in its secure data center.

Back in California, the bill now goes to the Governor, who once had a similar device implanted up his nose in the movie Total Recall. One hopes, based on that experience, that he will promptly sign the legislation.

Even if he does, the bill only applies to employers and employees. That leaves open a host of other scenarios. One day soon, no doubt, prisoners will be required to be chipped as a condition of parole, probation or house arrest, just as they're sometimes required to wear ankle bracelets today. In fact - ironically - the same day the Senate acted to restrict chips, the Assembly approved a bill expanding law enforcement's ability to impose ankle bracelets.

We can also expect to see chipping of registered sex offenders, even after their sentences are complete, just as they are required to notify police for life whenever they move. Next may come illegal immigrants, chipped as they are escorted out the door, or as a condition of amnesty. Welfare recipients might follow (they're already often fingerprinted).

Then there are the more voluntary applications, although the line between "voluntary" and "coerced" is not always clear. Parental fear of kidnapping may lead to chipping of kids, just as some parents today already fingerprint, photograph and collect DNA from their kids. You can see the rationale: "if it's worth protecting your cat, isn't it worth protecting your kid?" As those kids grow up, they'd probably remain chipped. Mental patients, and elderly people suffering from or at risk of dementia, are also likely target populations for chipping.

One day, too, as in Total Recall, the RFID chips will acquire GPS capability, increasing their allure, and the privacy risks. Unfortunately, we're on a slippery slope to a nation of geotracked "chipizens," but we've never been able to resist clever technology even when its benefits come at a price. Blogging's a perfect example - look how much privacy we're willing to give up in exchange for networking opportunities and 15 minutes of fame.

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. One day, we'll know the exact locations and identities of everyone on that road. Read more.

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