Big Brother chips away at civil liberties

A US TECHNOLOGY company is seeking to market the first-ever computer ID chip that can be embedded beneath a person’s skin.

For airports, nuclear power plants and other high security facilities, the immediate benefits could be a security system that is close to fool-proof - but human rights groups warn that the chip could lead to encroachments on civil liberties.

The implant technology is another case of science fiction becoming fact: advocates say it would make ID cards next to impossible to counterfeit - a computer chip would be difficult to remove and mimic.

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The VeriChip, produced by Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions, is yet another sign that 11 September has catapulted the science of security into an uncharted realm - with new fears for privacy. "The problem is that you always have to think about what the device will be used for tomorrow," said Lee Tien, a senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a pro-privacy group. "It’s what we call function creep. At first a device is used for applications we all agree are good, but then it slowly is used for more than it was intended."

However, Applied Digital, which says it will soon begin the process of getting approval for the device from the Food and Drug Administration, explains that it intends to limit its marketing to companies that ensure its use is voluntary.

"The line in the sand that we draw is that the use of the VeriChip would always be voluntary," said Keith Bolton, chief technology officer and a vice-president at Applied Digital. "We would never provide it to a company that intended to coerce people to use it."

Mr Bolton acknowledged that the devastation of 11 September had strengthened the company’s resolve to market the human chip. "It’s a sad time when people have to wonder whether it’s safe in their own country," he said.

Terry Cook, a theologian and writer, said he worries that the identification chip could be the "mark of the beast" - an identifying mark that all people will be forced to wear just before the End Times, according to the Bible. Applied Digital has even consulted theologians and appeared on religious television programmes to assure viewers that the chip did not fit the biblical description of the mark because it is under the skin and hidden from view.

The company also foresees the chip being used to help emergency workers identify a lost Alzheimer’s patient or access an unconscious patient’s medical history. Jeff Jacobs, a Florida man who suffers from a number of serious allergies, hopes to become the first person to purchase the chip.

"They [doctors] would know who to contact, they would know what medications I’m on, and it’s quite a few," he said.

Applied Digital says technology to let the chip to be used for tracking is already well under development. In some countries, kidnapping has become an epidemic that limits tourism and business - and eight Latin American countries are encouraging the company to pursue the internal tracking devices.

How to get an implant

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* A person or company buys the chip from Applied Digital for about $200 and the company encodes it with the desired information. The person seeking the implant takes the tiny device - about the size of a grain of rice - to their doctor, who can insert it with a large needle device.

* The doctor monitors the device for several weeks to make sure it doesn’t move and no infection develops.

*The device has no power supply - it contains a 1mm magnetic coil that is activated when a scanning device is run across the skin above it. A tiny transmitter on the chip sends out the data.

*Without a scanner, the chip cannot be read. Applied Digital plans to give away chip readers to hospitals and ambulance companies, in the hope that they will become standard equipment.