Implantable Identification Devices: Should We Worry About "Getting Chipped?"

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What if someday a computer identification chip--a chip able to contain any information storable in a digital format--could be implanted into your body? Your identity, personal medical records, and other important information would be with you wherever you go, adding a level of convenience that would make the ATM card look like yesterday's technology. What if that chip could monitor your vital signs and be used by others to locate you, using global positioning satellite technology, no matter where you might be? With this chip, you would, technically speaking, be a cyborg: part human, part machine. Would you welcome such a chip, or would you see it as a serious threat to your privacy and a potential tool of intrusive businesses and even oppressive governments?

Such a chip is not a futuristic invention, but is here now and nearly ready to be used. It is the VeriChip, and its designer, Applied Digital Solutions of Florida, is seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin putting it to use. Their motto is "Get Chipped!" and it is reported that at least 2,500 people have already indicated their desire to do so. The device, about the size of a grain of rice, is injected under the skin, and though unpowered will respond to special handheld scanners. Applied Digital has a number of positive uses in mind for the device, including the provision of medical information for people who become unconscious and the identification of lost Alzheimer's patients. The device could also be used along with tracking equipment to help locate lost or kidnapped people, kind of like a "LoJack" for humans (the LoJack is an electronic tracing device used to retrieve stolen automobiles).

Those who have a strong suspicion of advances in technology that might be used to limit liberty and remove privacy will be concerned about this device. Anyone who has been troubled by such dystopian novels as Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or Brave New World will likely be chilled by the announcement of the VeriChip. In addition, concerns have been raised regarding end-time prophecy by those wondering whether the chip could be the equivalent of the "mark of the beast" spoken about in Revelation. According to the Associated Press, Applied Digital has consulted with various theologians and subsequently assured people that the chip doesn't fit the biblical description of the mark because it is under the skin and hidden from view.

The chip raises very serious questions of ethics and public policy, particularly in the areas of invasion of privacy and surveillance--areas in which there is substantial literature in moral philosophy and political science. Privacy results from exercising the ability to control access to information about ourselves. At least in part, it is to be able to keep certain facts about ourselves secret and to share them when we choose, when we feel comfortable doing so. Concerns about the erosion of privacy increased with the ascent of the Internet, and we rightly regard invasions of our privacy with alarm, resentment, and suspicion. Since the advent of the "war on terror," however, privacy concerns raised against implantable chip technology seem to be diminishing, as many people might likely support use of a chip in order to heighten security. Americans are already enduring--often willingly--serious and demeaning invasions of their privacy (such as invasive personal searches at airports and high-tech innovations such as facial recognition cameras in public places) that were unthinkable before September 11th.

A crucial aspect of privacy which should not be readily forfeited is medical confidentiality. Since the time of Hippocrates, ethical physicians have been concerned to protect medical confidentiality, including the privacy of medical records. Medical confidentiality is important for a number of reasons which are well documented in the literature of medical ethics, not least of which is the impact that inappropriate disclosures of patient information would have on people's willingness to reveal to their doctors personal information that is needed in order to receive the best care. Such confidentiality, already under siege with the advent of web-based medical databases, would be dealt a death blow by the VeriChip, since a person with this chip would virtually walk about with her medical history on her sleeve, unable to protect it from the prying eyes of anyone who wanted to see it.

As philosopher Sissela Bok has argued in her book Secrets, a certain amount of secrecy about ourselves is essential for a proper development of self-concept and social boundaries. As she says, "Secrecy is as indispensable to human beings as fire, and as greatly feared." What is the biblical foundation for a concern for privacy? While Scripture makes clear that all thoughts and actions stand revealed to God, there are good reasons from a biblical perspective to want to keep such knowledge out of the grasp of human beings. Knowledge gives power, and someone's capacity to access personal information about another on demand gives that individual great power over the other. Scripture is replete with cautions on what happens when fallen human beings gain unchecked control over other people, resulting in a temptation to abuse others that even King David, the "man after God's own heart," could not resist.

What is an appropriate ethical assessment of the VeriChip? Does it represent a serious threat to our privacy, to our ability to control the information we give out to others? I believe that it does in fact constitute a serious threat, and that once it is accepted, it will find an ever-expanding market for continually expanding uses. While Applied Digital's Chief Technology Officer and Vice President Keith Bolton assures us that "the line in the sand that we draw is that the use of the VeriChip would always be voluntary," what assurance do we have that these announced good intentions will not be rejected by those who seek other, nonvoluntary uses for the technology? While it is unlikely that a highly intrusive program will be announced that will turn us overnight into highly monitored objects of nonvoluntary surveillance, it isn't at all a stretch of the imagination to imagine this happening by degrees.

In fact, coercive and invasive applications of the VeriChip will not take much time at all to develop and are even already included in the company's current plans. Time magazine reports that the company already plans to use it in nonvoluntary, even coercive, ways, stating that, "Security is part of the VeriChip business plan. The company has already signed a deal with the California Department of Corrections to track the movements of parolees using Digital Angel," an existing device currently being miniaturized for implantation. Time also cites Dr. Richard Seelig, the medical applications director of Applied Digital, who foresees that the device "could function as a theft-proof, counterfeit-proof ID, like having a driver's license embedded under your skin," and believes that airline pilots ought to be required by the government or by the airlines to have a VeriChip implanted in order to enhance cockpit security. Dr. Seelig is quoted as saying, "I think we have a right to demand that. Our lives are in their hands."

Compromising the privacy of parolees might not elicit a great deal of public sympathy, so it is not surprising that this group of people will likely be the first to have the VeriChip implanted. Then, perhaps the chip could be implanted into certain other convicted criminals to monitor their movements, for example, into people with a history of child molestation so that authorities could be alerted whenever they are too near a school. Once we accept these scenarios, the proverbial "camel's nose is in the tent" for nonvoluntary applications of this technology.

The VeriChip's potential for real abuse of basic civil liberties, and for concentrating unprecedented power over individuals in the hands of a few, is both real and deeply troubling. Christians and other concerned individuals should work to outlaw the technology altogether, and, if this is impossible, to prevent its use in any surveillance or coercive application, including the monitoring of parolees. The device should certainly not be approved without stringent legal safeguards in place to outlaw all uses of the technology that are not personally requested by the recipient. Even with such safeguards, the path of implantable biochip technology is a road that would be better not traveled.

In the future, we may indeed find that without the VeriChip, it is difficult or impossible to conduct the most basic economic transactions, while with the chip we will be open to invasive scrutiny and real-time surveillance, ushering in a new form of slavery. There will literally be nowhere to hide. George Orwell himself could not have envisioned a more sinister scenario.