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The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a gimmick from Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions to chip people with RFID implants - previously confined to tracking animals - thereby making it easy to access their medical records, even when they cannot, or would rather not, cooperate.

The tiny, passive RFID devices, called VeriChips, are injected under the hide. They do not contain the medical data in question, but instead store a unique ID number that is used to access records on a remote server maintained by Applied Digital, using a handheld reader. The chips are legal in numerous applications, but cannot be used as medical devices without FDA approval - which they now have got.

So, what is the problem that this technology solves? We don't think there is one, unless doctors' offices are being flooded with people who can't recall their own medical histories. Yes, some people do suffer from dementia, but these are most often found already in nursing facilities and hospitals, or at least supervised by a nurse or family member.

Of course, accident victims may be found unconscious, but a simple dog tag suffices to warn emergency crews of drug allergies and tricky medical conditions. And the dog tag has two distinct advantages: first, in non-emergency situations, the owner can prevent others from reading it simply by concealing it under the clothes; and second, the data is there: it doesn't suffer from availability problems, as remote servers so often do.

The company says that the chips will save lives and reduce medical errors, but we are not persuaded. Indeed, if, during an emergency, the data were unavailable due to some technical glitch, and the patient were unconscious, the VeriChip might cost lives that a simple dog tag or bracelet would have saved. Medical data availability is a serious safety issue, as we discussed previously.

Technology for its own sake

For the moment, Applied Digital implies (but does not actually guarantee) that chip owners will be the only people permitted to add or delete medical data in their database. But this could change over time, and the idea that some alarmist quack or passionately risk-averse hospital administrator might be permitted to embellish one's records is decidedly frightening. One would need an ironclad guarantee, with serious teeth, asserting that no such thing will happen, before submitting to the hypo.

And then there's the question of access. Once you've got an implanted RFID chip, you necessarily lose control over the people who might wish to read it. You have a unique identifier that can be read without your knowledge. Thus there is nothing to prevent, say, businesses or government bureaux from surreptitiously reading one's VeriChip, and correlating one's ID number with their own set of criteria, hosted on their own remote servers, for whatever purposes their twisted bureaucratic minds can conceive.

And Applied Digital certainly is thinking along these lines. Indeed, the medical care angle looks like a warm-and-fuzzy gimmick to speed adoption so that other, potentially more sinister, applications might follow.

"VeriChip can enhance airport security, airline security, cruise ship security, intelligent transportation and port congestion management. In these markets, VeriChip could function as a stand-alone, tamper-proof personal verification technology," the company's PR boilerplate explains.

We doubt that many people will go for this scheme, but if it were to succeed commercially, it seems plausible that the embedded RFID chip could eventually become a universal identifier, like the Social Security number, which itself was not intended to be a universal identifier but has in fact become one. Mission creep happens.

Unique RF identity chips and concealed RF readers everywhere: madmen have been complaining about this since the earliest days of radio. That's how we knew they were madmen. Only an IT industry divorced from any sense of good taste and human dignity, in which technology becomes an end in itself, could strive to make the nightmares of the insane a common reality. And yet, here we are. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a comprehensive guide to system hardening, malware protection, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux.

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