An implanted ID chip? Makes my skin crawl...

In a recent column I introduced you to Digital Angel, a combination of hardware and services that gives caregivers the ability to track a lost patient--say, someone with Alzheimer's who has wandered away from a care facility.

COMMENTARY--In a recent column I introduced you to Digital Angel, a combination of hardware and services that gives caregivers the ability to track a lost patient--say, someone with Alzheimer's who has wandered away from a care facility.

The idea of surreptitiously tracking people usually makes the pro-privacy lobby see red, although privacy advocates have indicated a willingness to make an exception in the case of a person who can get lost in his or her own home.

WELL, THE OTHER SHOE has dropped. The company behind Digital Angel has announced a new ID chip that can be used in people, or at least once the FDA (news - web sites) gives its approval. People who see this as a frightening development are already calling it "Digital Devil" and invoking various Biblical prophesies of doom. I think that is taking it too far, but even paranoia has a point.

If you are familiar with the ID implants used for dogs, cats, cows, and other animals, you pretty much have the concept nailed. If you spend a moment thinking about the uses of this technology, called VeriChip and introduced by Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions, there are some very good ideas.

The chip itself is described as the size of a Tic Tac mint and can be implanted with minimally invasive surgery--local anesthesia, a small incision, and a Band-Aid to cover the wound. The VeriChip can store about a paragraph's worth of information, which can be "read" by a palm-sized scanning device from outside the patient's body.

MEDICAL USES for the VeriChip include its use to both mark and permanently identify implanted medical hardware, such as pacemakers, heart valves, artificial joints, and pumps of various types. Besides not always being visible to physicians, the devices sometimes need new settings or are--gulp--recalled by the manufacturer. The VeriChip can record original settings, serial numbers, and similar information so one of your "parts" doesn't become lost.

Future versions might allow additional information to be added and even to be rewritten in the field. That would let doctors update your medical record, making the information readily available as needed.

Besides medical information, the devices can also be used to store identity information, perhaps for use by emergency or military personnel, or anyone who'd like to carry such information--literally--as a part of his or her self.

But that application also leads us to the potential for abuse, like placing identity information into you or me against our will. Imagine a system in which the chips could be read at some distance--say 20 feet--as a biometric tool for security applications. Yes, this could bar sex offenders from, say, entering a preschool, but it's also easy to think of how honest people could get caught in this trap, too.

THE CONCEPT of a national identity card--something you'd carry to use for matching with your fingerprint or retinal scan--gains a new dimension with implant technology. Or perhaps the chips could be implanted at birth as a sort of digital birth certificate.

Thinking about such prospects reminds me of three essential aspects of any new invention: The first is that technology is amoral, even when there is a temptation to consider it immoral, instead. Second, it's pretty hard to keep technology under wraps: If something is technologically possible, somebody is going to do it. And, finally, if something is created, it will probably be both used and abused.

I hope that VeriChip and its ilk--which have great potential to help people--will find their way into the hands of people who are well-intentioned and smart in equal parts. But I am not naive, either. This is what the ongoing privacy debate is about--and the VeriChip gives us another good reason to pay close attention to it.

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