February 27, 2006
|MAUREEN FARRELL ARCHIVES|
When Big Brother Gets Under Your Skin
by Maureen Farrell
"Can a microscopic tag be implanted in a person's body to track his every movement? There's actual discussion about that. You will rule on that -- mark my words -- before your tenure is over." -- Sen. Joseph Biden, to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Sept. 2005.
On Feb. 12, the Financial Times reported on CityWatcher.com, a Cincinnati-based company implanted RFID (Radio Frequency ID) silicon chips into two of its employees. The company defended the practice, assuring that the procedure was not meant to track employees or infringe on their rights, but anti-RFID activists took exception. "It worries us that a government contractor that specializes in surveillance projects would be the first to publicly incorporate this technology in the workplace," Liz McIntyre said in a press release, triggering "irate e-mails" to CityWatcher.com's Web site.
McIntyre, co-author of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, and Communications Director for Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) has been at the fore of a campaign against this new technology, alongside CASPIAN founder and director and Spychips co-author Katherine Albrecht. In a Dec. 2005 interview in Mother Jones, Albrecht underscored deeper concerns, particularly now that former Bush administration official Tommy Thompson serves on the board of Applied Digital, the company that manufactures VeriChip.
The Harvard-educated Albrecht, it should be pointed out, also believes that this technology relates to the "Mark of the Beast" referred to in the book of Revelation. "The Mark of the Beast, 666: a prophesy from 2000 years ago. How many people (know that) technological developments of the last 10 to 20 years could be combining to make the Mark of the Beast a reality, and possibly even in our lifetimes?" she asks in a video entitled On the Brink of the Mark.
Though religious convictions fuel her passion, Albrecht says privacy concerns extend beyond religious and political lines. "Regardless of whether your beliefs are progressive or conservative, socially or politically, everybody's got a reason to not want somebody spying on them," she told Mother Jones. "Whether you're afraid that Big Brother is going to take the form of an evil corporation or Big Brother is going to take the form of an evil government or take whatever form, everybody's got a reason to be concerned."
Not everyone sees something sinister looming behind this new technology, however.
RFID chips are currently being used to track everything from products to consumer trends to pets to medical histories. Mississippi morgue workers used RFID chips to inventory "unidentified remains" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and more than 800 hospitals are currently using RFID technology to monitor infants in maternity wards. Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J. has installed equipment to read medical information from implanted chips, while 68 other hospitals are poised to do the same.
Techdirt, the highly touted blog charged with "decoding tech news for the masses" has also pointed to this technology's benefits. "There's a crowd of folks who are extremely anti-RFID chips. They often raise important privacy issues, but they tend to go a bit overboard in their stance in that they rarely offer any kind of solution to RFID chips other than to ban them all completely. That's the wrong approach, since RFIDs can have real value, and many of the downsides can be solved with technology," wrote Mike on Techdirt's site. (Albrecht also concedes that RFID "is a great technology if you want to track things from point A to point B" but says that the benefits "absolutely pale in comparison to the risks that this technology poses").
Techdirt, however, shares some of Albrecht's concerns. "[If] there's one company in the space that seems worth being extra skeptical about, it's Applied Digital, the makers of the VeriChip -- an implantable RFID chip," Mike wrote, before chronicling less savory aspects of the company's history. "We were quite surprised, in fact, to hear earlier this year that former Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson agreed, not only to be on their board, but also to get chipped himself. Turns out, though, that he might not have really meant it," he added. (Though Thompson vowed to get an RFID implant in July, 2005, as of December, he had yet to do so.)
Skittishness is understandable, as many see a sizable difference between having products tracked through RFID chips and using the same technology in people. "This may be appropriate for cattle, pets or packages, but for humans it is a very different issue," Lee Tien, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Chicago Tribune. Paula Brantner, an attorney for Workplace Fairness, believes most employees would balk at the idea of being chipped. "This is incredible. It raises something out of '1984.' It is a very invasive way of keeping tabs on your workers," she said.
Others argue that implanted microchips pose a risk beyond Big Brother concerns. Independent researcher Jonathan Westhues has demonstrated how easy it is to hack and clone imbedded chips and steal information. "I could sit next to you on the subway, and read your chip's ID. At this point I can break in to your house, by replaying that ID. So now you have to change your ID; but as far as I know, you cannot do this without surgery," he wrote on his Web site.
Though recent polls show that 81% of Americans believe "that the right to privacy [is] 'essential'," Applied Digital's CEO Scott Silverman says Americans are becoming more receptive to the idea of RFID implants. "When we first announced VeriChip, a network poll asked people if they would put one in their bodies. Only 9% said yes," Silverman said, noting that the percentage rose to 33% once Tommy Thompson signed on. A study conducted by Applied Digital later indicated that 80% of those polled said they "would have a VeriChip implant to identify their medical records in case of an emergency."
Though this technology took root during World War II, in the past few years, it has been brought to the national consciousness through several surreal avenues. Hollywood remakes such as the Manchurian Candidate and the Stepford Wives featured chipping as a means of control and manipulation; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh famously complained the US Army had implanted a chip in his right buttock; and the History Channel featured a discussion of the possibility of a future "microchip population" in a segment on secret societies. (The idea was forwarded by David Icke, it should be noted, who also believes that both Presidents Bush and Bill and Hillary Clinton belong to a race of shape-shifting reptiles.)
Lately, however, RFID news has moved beyond the surreal to become 100% real -- and the progression has been amazingly swift:
In Sept., 2001, the late Hunter S. Thompson assessed the state of our Brave New World. "The 22 babies born in New York City while the World Trade Center burned will never know what they missed. The last half of the 20th century will seem like a wild party for rich kids, compared to what's coming now," he wrote. While that seems true enough, what will the future hold for those babies' babies? Newborns are already being tracked via RFID technology, and it's not unfeasible that "chipping" could become as commonplace as circumcision. After all, when a former government official tells a major daily newspaper that RFID "will prevent babies from being picked up by the wrong people in a maternity ward and make sure people in nursing homes don't walk away" and announces plans to get "chipped" himself, the day might come when Big Brother could literally get under our skins.
After all, in the past few years, the notion of Big Brother has gone from George Orwell's fantasy to mainstream acceptance. And though Mark of the Beast superstitions are often quite laughable, they become less humorous against the backdrop of today's Apocalyptic political climate. ("This is going to be just like the Book of Revelation said it was going to be -- the end of the world as we knew it," Thompson concluded in July, 2003 -- an assessment a surprising number of Americans seem to share.)
Is this technology something to be dreaded or welcomed? Time will tell. Fear of the unknown has existed peripherally alongside every advancement. Nearly 200 years ago, for example, Mary Shelley responded to the threats posed by the Industrial Revolution by writing Frankenstein, sounding an enduring warning against the "over-reaching" of mankind.
And while RFID technology might not be as frightening as Frankenstein's monster, Ms. Albrecht seems to disagree. "This technology poses serious risks to privacy and civil liberties," she said in Oct. 2005. "These RFID spychips can be read silently from a distance, right through your clothes, wallet, backpack or purse by anyone with the right reader device. Already these companies have developed ways to use RFID tags embedded in credit cards and sewn into clothing to identify and track people."
Our children, it appears, will have monsters to conquer, too.
Maureen Farrell is a writer and media consultant who specializes in helping other writers get television and radio exposure.
© Copyright 2004, Maureen Farrell