Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Electronic identification tags chipping away at personal freedoms

The creeping extension of tracking technology that can be implanted in our bodies will eventually break down all the barriers between citizens and the state

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It received just a few column inches in a couple of papers, but the story I read last week looks to me like a glimpse of the future. A company in Ohio called CityWatcher has implanted radio transmitters into the arms of two of its workers. The implants ensure that only they can enter the strongroom. Apparently it is "the first known case in which US workers have been tagged electronically as a way of identifying them."

The transmitters are tiny (about the size of a grain of rice), cheap (US$148.55 and falling fast), safe and stable. Without being maintained or replaced, they can identify someone for many years.

They are injected, with a local anaesthetic, into the upper arm. They require no power source, as they become active only when scanned.

There are no technical barriers to their wider deployment.

The company that makes these "radio-frequency identification tags," the VeriChip Corporation, says they "combine access control with the location and protection of individuals." The chips can also be implanted in hospital patients, especially children and people who are mentally ill. When doctors want to know who they are and what their medical history is, they simply scan them in. This, apparently, is "an empowering option to affected individuals." For a while, a school in California toyed with the idea of implanting the chips in all its pupils.

satellite tracking

A tag such as this has a maximum range of a few meters. But another implantable device emits a signal that allows someone to be found or tracked by satellite. The patent notice says it can be used to locate the victims of kidnapping or people lost in the wilderness.

There are, in other words, plenty of legitimate uses for implanted chips. This is why they bother me. A technology whose widespread deployment, if attempted now, would be greeted with horror, will gradually become unremarkable. As this happens, its purpose will begin to creep.

At first the tags will be more widely used for workers with special security clearance. No one will be forced to wear one; no one will object. Then hospitals -- and a few in the US are already doing this -- will start scanning their unconscious or incoherent patients to see whether they have a tag. Insurance companies might start to demand that vulnerable people are chipped.

The armed forces will discover that they are more useful than dog tags for identifying injured soldiers or for tracking troops who are lost or have been captured by the enemy. Prisons will soon come to the same conclusion. Then sweatshops in developing countries will begin to catch on. Already the overseers seek to control their workers to the second; determining when they clock on, when they visit the toilet, even the number of hand movements they perform. A chip makes all this easier. The workers will not be forced to have them, any more than they are forced to have sex with their bosses; but if they don't accept the conditions, they don't get the job.

After that, it surely won't be long before asylum seekers are confronted with a similar choice: you don't have to accept an implant, but if you refuse, you can't stay in the country.

I think it will probably stop there. I don't believe that you or I or most comfortable, mentally competent people will be forced to wear a tag. But it will become an increasingly acceptable means of tracking and identifying people who could be a danger to themselves, or who could be at risk of sudden illness or disappearance, or who are otherwise hard for companies or governments to control. They will, on the whole, be people whose political voice is muted.

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