Thursday, October 14, 2004

An RFID chip on your shoulder?

A little over a month ago I suggested that fast-food operators and coffee chains give their frequent customers a card with an imbedded RFID chip. Scanners at the door would recognize the customer and would transmit his/her most likely order to the kitchen well before the customer gets to order in person. Some interesting privacy issues there, but the fast-track VIP status would be rather appealing to many customers.

Now, amid all the controversy about WallMart’s obliging its suppliers to RFID-tag their products, and the resulting murmurings about potential invasions of consumer privacy, comes yesterday’s announcement by the FDA that it has approved the implantation of an identity chip under the skin of human beings.

The same technology that has been used for fifteen years or more to “chip” domestic pets is finally available to people in America. The FDA hopes that the chip, encased in a glob of glass smaller than a grain of rice, will be used to make vital medical information instantly available in emergencies. The chip is syringe-implanted in the upper arm in seconds, and when a scanner is waved over the body, the chip transmits its imbedded data.

The applications of this technology already go beyond the healthcare concept. A few weeks ago, an article on the BBC news site talked about a beach club in Barcelona that offered implanted chips to its patrons as a way of controlling access and instantly paying for drinks, like a tollbooth smartcard. For a beach club, this makes perfect sense: you get to leave your wallet and your ID card at home.

The time will probably come when we all have a dozen or more chips in our arms, one for every piece of plastic we now carry in our wallets. The state of Virginia is already looking at imbedding RFID tags in driver’s licenses. Can the move to arm implants be far behind? And speaking of driving, do you really need car keys if your car can recognize your chip?

Where is George Orwell when we need him?

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