Should You Be Tagged?

November 5, 2004

3 Min Read
Should You Be Tagged?

Originally Published MPMN November 2004


Should You Be Tagged?
In his book, 1984, George Orwell predicted a time when ordinary people had no secrets from the government. Headed by Big Brother, the Party saw all and knew all, because they could track a person’s every move with two-way TVs called telescreens.

At the time Orwell was writing, that kind of government scrutiny seemed nearly impossible. But, as it turns out, he might have been clairvoyant after all, give or take 20 years.

Not in every way, of course. Obviously, we don’t have giant telescreens watching us. But now there is a technology that will enable us to carry within our bodies a chip that could hold untold amounts of personal information. These chips can be used for people with chronic illnesses or conditions to transmit the data to healthcare providers.

FDA recently approved the VeriChip for human use. It is an implantable radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchip about the size of a grain of rice which contains a unique 16-digit number for each patient. The entire system includes an inserter, a proprietary handheld scanner, and a secure database containing patient-approved medical information.

It works like this. A doctor or paramedic waves the scanner over a patient’s arm to read the chip’s number. The captured number links to the database via encrypted Internet access. Previously stored information is then conveyed via the Internet to the registered requesting healthcare provider.

No doubt, VeriChips can be lifesavers in certain instances.

But they might open up a huge can of worms as well, in terms of patient privacy. In light of this, Applied Digital, which makes VeriChip, has put several safeguards in place to protect confidentiality. VeriChip RFID tags are passive. Therefore they do not broadcast radio waves and cannot be used to track a person’s movements. And the scanners cannot read the chips from more than a few feet away.

However, design advances or the addition of a separate power source for the chips could expand those ranges and make tracking possible. This is where the technology could do more harm than good. Imagine what would happen if someone could hack into the patient database. Or if an evildoer got his hands on a scanner and was able to retrieve information without the patient’s knowledge.

All this is just speculation, but worth thinking about. And it remains to be seen whether the public will accept VeriChip. Although about 1000 people in Mexico have been implanted with the chip, so far no hospitals in the United States have placed orders for them, according to Applied Digital. In fact, in order to stimulate interest, the company is planning to give away scanners to 200 trauma centers in the United States.

If this device is widely accepted, it could benefit many individuals, especially those with complicated medical histories. However, care must be taken to ensure that the technology does not stray into the realm of Big Brother.

Susan Wallace, Managing Editor

Copyright ©2004 Medical Product Manufacturing News

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