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[February 13, 2006]
Americans starting to implant RFID chips in humans
(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) CHICAGO _ Say you have a high-security workplace and worry about the wrong people getting in.
Forget badges that can be lost or stolen. Why not tag employees with a radio-transmitting chip.
From about a foot away a special device will read the implanted chip's 16-digit number _ and zap, doors open and close.
That Orweillian-sounding idea is exactly what an Ohio security firm's boss has done with two of his workers and himself.
"We wanted a way to say, `Hey, we are a little different in the way we take our security,'" explained Sean Darks, chief executive of CityWatcher.Com in Cincinnati, who also is wearing a chip. "I wouldn't have my employees do something, if I didn't do it myself," he added.
His glee is not shared by workplace and privacy experts, who shudder at the idea that Corporate America might decide to brand employees with the latest technology, known as Radio Frequency Identification Device.
"This may be appropriate for cattle, pets or packages, but for humans it is a very different issue," said Lee Tien, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology and civil liberties group in San Francisco, Calif.
Besides Darks and his tagged employers, about 70 others in the United States have the tags implanted in their bodies _ mostly for medical reasons _ or because they work for VeriChip Corp., the Delray Beach, Fla., firm that makes the chip, according to company spokesman John Procter.
The United States seems a little behind in embracing the technology.
Workers at the organized crime division of Mexico's Attorney General in Mexico City, for example, wear the chips to try to maintain top security.
So do about 2,000 patrons of nightclubs in Barcelona, Spain, and Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The chips allow them to avoid long waits in lines and to even run tabs at the clubs, which are owned by the same firm. Waiters scan the chips and a computer automatically draws the amount due from their checking accounts.
More than 30 years old, the technology has been used by businesses to track items, farmers to locate missing animals and by libraries to keep tabs on books. Runners have worn them in races to clock more precise times.
There's also an Internet site for so-called taggers, people who allegedly have the devices intended for other uses implanted in them.
In October 2004, VeriChip, a subsidiary of Applied Digital, received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for implanting chips in humans, said company spokesman John Procter. A researcher at Applied Digital was struck by sight of firefighters writing their badge numbers on their arms during the 9/11 tragedy in case they were lost.
Now VeriChip has begun to set up a network of hospital emergency rooms with readers equipped to read the devices. The chip reader costs $600, but the company is donating the first 200, Procter added.
Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J., is already using the equipment; 68 other facilities have also signed up for the readers.
VeriChip recommends that doctors charge a $200 fee for implanting chips. The technology is especially useful, the company says, as a preventative measure for patients who may not be able to communicate, suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer's. In an emergency room, the patient's history would be immediately opened by the scanner.
In the case of workers like those at the Ohio security firm, the signal from the chip triggers the reader to search for a password, which, in turn, can open a door, for example.
The technology does not provide a person's location from a distance as in the case with cell phones, the company said.
Procter said the chip "cannot be lost or stolen. It is inconspicuous, and it is there under your arm when you need it."
Critics worry that the signal can be picked up by any reader, allowing unauthorized persons to access private information.
But Procter disputed that, saying the scanner would need to be able to breach coded information to reach the databases.
Paula Brantner, an attorney for Workplace Fairness, a workers' advocacy group in San Francisco, said she expected workers would resent having chips placed under their skin.
"This is incredible. It raises something out of `1984.' It is a very invasive way of keeping tabs on your workers," she said.
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But that is not the way Darks, of CityWatcher, Com., sees it. His 4-year-old, seven-worker firm stores images captured by police, public officials and businesses on their security cameras _ and he wanted to control access to his facility.
After deciding that the chip was the way, Darks had one installed on his right arm. "It took five seconds to install it," he said, describing the device as about a half-inch long.
An avid basketball player, he said he has been hit several times in his right arm and the chip hasn't been damaged.
As for his workers, they haven't complained. They volunteered for the chips, he said.
"There's nobody watching me and I'm not watching my employees with it."
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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