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