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Identity Is Only Skin Deep
As microchip implants catch on, will you take a shot at getting scanned?

By William Kanapaux

Back in December 2001, while the Western world was still reeling from the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and punched a hole in the Pentagon, a company called Applied Digital Solutions introduced a miniaturized, implantable identification device known as the VeriChip.

About the size of an uncooked grain of rice, the VeriChip can be implanted under the skin by a simple injection. Once in place, usually in the right arm at the triceps muscle, the implant is capable of transmitting its data to an external scanner through a radio frequency signal.

The chip can hold critical medical and financial information, or it may simply contain a 16-digit ID number that allows the appropriate data to be downloaded from a database.

The technology behind VeriChip was first used in the 1990s in house pets as a way to identify their owners in the event the pets got lost. The radio frequency identification (RFID) chip lies dormant under the skin until a scanner passes over it.

Last November, the company launched the VeriPay System, which gives people who have been “chipped” a seemingly fraud-proof payment method. The company says the technology is tamper-proof, which is probably true short of the messy business of actually digging out the device.

And while there hasn’t been a mad rush on the implants, the technology is beginning to catch on.

In April, the owner of the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, Spain, adopted the system and is now offering the implants for a modest fee to VIP patrons who’d rather not have to reach for their wallets or worry about credit cards getting lost or stolen. “This round’s on me, bartender. Put it on my chip.”

Having buff triceps could be all the rage at the clubs before long.

Meanwhile, statements from the company sound like something out of the first 10 minutes of a science-fiction blockbuster, right before things go terribly wrong. “We are the only company today offering human implantable ID technology,” Scott Silverman, CEO of Applied Digital Solutions, said in November. “We believe the market opportunity for this technology is substantial.”

Even MasterCard is entertaining the notion of human implants. Most of its efforts, as well as those of other credit-card companies, have gone toward using RFID chips in their cards (in lieu of magnetic strips) or in key fobs and other items. “Ultimately, [an RFID chip] could be embedded in anything,” a senior vice president at MasterCard said in an interview with USA Today last year. “Someday, maybe even under the skin.”

That would certainly give new meaning to the slogan “Don’t leave home without it.”

Obviously, not everyone sees this as a good thing. The device makes privacy advocates and Christian fundamentalists alike shudder. Depending on the viewpoint, the implant either represents a serious threat to personal privacy or is nothing less than the mark of the beast from the Book of Revelation.

The VeriChip may sound like disturbing technology, but in one respect it’s simply an extension of the things we already live with—namely scanner tags—and while initially people might balk at the idea, implants will win converts because of their convenience, safety and reliability.

Widespread acceptance of VeriChip and similar technologies appears to be inevitable, particularly as concerns about identity theft and terrorist attacks continue to grow. Airlines might give it a try as a more foolproof method of checking identities—and making sure that passengers on the watch list are closely monitored. A depletion of resources such as gasoline would seem likely to speed up the process. Rationing systems might require the chip for purchases in order to develop a sustainable system of tracking how limited supplies are distributed across large populations.

In a world where extraordinary technologies become commonplace in short order, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a time in the near future when people will scoff at the notion of life without a microchip implant.

We’ve already been softened up to accept it. With every swipe of a credit card and each scan of a bar code, we become more and more accustomed to allowing each of our transactions to be filed away in someone else’s database.

Is it that large of a leap to go the next step and never have to dig through your wallet or purse again?

Only about 1,000 people worldwide have gotten the implant so far, but that number is bound to grow. How quickly it happens will depend on the extent that large organizations, corporations and government agencies decide to adopt the technology.

At least one risk-management agency has embraced it as the answer to eliminating credit-card fraud and identity theft. Miami-based Metro Risk Management Group plans to use VeriChip to replace biometric technologies such as retinal and fingerprint scans, which require expensive equipment and are prone to error.

The company announced in April that it would introduce the chip, which it calls a “subdermal payment solution,” into Latin American and European markets. It plans to order more than 10,000 VeriChips and more than 1,000 scanners for use in Ecuador alone.

Certain applications seem natural for RFID chips. For instance, a chip implanted over a patient’s medical device would allow hospital staff to gain access to critical information with the wave of a scanner. Health care workers would no longer need to resort to exploratory surgery to learn about a patient’s pacemaker or heart valve or medication pump.

And the device has other potentially good applications.

It can be used instead of security key cards for people to gain access to office buildings, and perhaps eventually hotel rooms, reducing the likelihood of unauthorized entry. It can be used in conjunction with global-positioning systems to track Alzheimer’s patients who wander off into the woods in the middle of the night. Or children who have been abducted.

The technology has even earned kudos from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The VeriChip was chosen by HHS as one of 20 innovative health care technologies to be featured at its 2004 Steps to a HealthierUS summit in April. The chip’s approval as a medical device from the Food and Drug Administration may not be far behind.

But as with all technology, microchip implants hold the potential for great abuse. Doomsayers envision a cashless, totalitarian society in which an individual’s access to even the most basic necessities such as food and shelter could be terminated with a keystroke.

At the very least, the device could give governing authorities and major corporations access to more data than most people would ever feel comfortable surrendering—if they had to hand it over in a shoebox. But what of the convenience of flashing your arm at a grocery store checkout or as you enter a stadium for a concert? What if the chip could ultimately activate your car, eliminating the need for your keys as well as your wallet?

You may be closer to accepting an implant than you realize. It’s something to think about the next time you hold out your shopper’s advantage card for a quick scan or run your plastic through a card swipe.

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