Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Chip In Your Shoulder?

Back around 1987 or so, I walked by the bulletin board in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and saw a letter with a note scrawled at the bottom, "Anybody want to help Ms. X?" A woman had written the letter to our department chair because we had a reputation for doing research in microwave remote sensing and the detecting of radio waves. In the letter, she said that she was convinced the FBI had secretly embedded a radio-wave spying chip in her body. She did not go into details about the circumstances under which this had been done, nor did she say exactly where she thought the chip was. But she knew it was there, and she wanted to know if she could come to our labs to be examined by us with our sensitive equipment.

Needless to say, nobody took her up on her offer to be "examined," although her letter was the topic of some lunchtable conversation for the next few days. I understand that this sort of belief is not uncommon among individuals whom psychiatry used to term "paranoid," although I don't know what terminology would be used today. Well, yesterday's paranoid fear is today's welcome reality—welcomed by some, at least. The cover of the March 2007 issue of the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum shows an X-ray montage of a young guy holding both hands up near the camera. In the X-ray images, two little sliver-shaped chips are clearly visible in the fleshy part of each hand between the thumb and forefinger.

Inside, the reader finds that Amal Graafstra, an entrepreneur and RFID (radio-frequency identification) enthusiast, thinks having RFID chips in each hand is just great. After convincing a plastic surgeon to insert the chips, which are a kind not officially approved for human use yet (they're sold to veterinarians for pet-tracking purposes), he rewired his house locks, motorcycle ignition, and various other gizmos that used to need keys or passwords. Now he can just make like Mandrake the Magician, waving his hand in front of his door or his motorcycle instead of hauling out keys. When he posted the initial results of his experiments on a website, he got all kinds of reactions ranging from essentially "Way to go, dude!" to negative comments based on religious convictions. As he explains, "Some Christian groups hold that the Antichrist . . . will require followers to be branded with a numeric identifier prior to the end of the world—the 'mark of the beast.' So I got some anxious notes from concerned Christians—including my own mother!"

Right after reading Mr. Graafstra's article, you can turn to a piece by Ken Foster and Jan Jaeger on the ethics of RFID implants in humans. (Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Prof. Foster through my work with IEEE's Society on Social Implications of Technology.) They dutifully point out the potential downsides of the technology, including the chance that what starts out as a purely voluntary thing, even a fashionable style among certain elites, might turn into a job requirement or something imposed by a government on citizens or aliens or both. They mention the grim precedent set by the Nazi regime when its concentration-camp guards forced every prisoner to receive a tattooed number on the arm. RFID chips are not nearly as visible as tattooes, but can contain vastly more information. Think of a miniature hard drive with your entire work history, your places of residence, your sensitive financial information and passwords, all carried around in your body and possibly accessible to anyone with the right (or perhaps wrong) equipment. Such large amounts of data cannot be stored in RFID chips yet, but if the rate of technical progress keeps up, it will be possible to do that soon. And following the rough-and-ready principle that anything which can be hacked, will be hacked, implanted RFID chips pose a great potential risk to privacy.

While Messrs. Graafstra, Foster, and Jaeger debate the pragmatic consequences of this technology, I would like to bring up something that the "Christian groups" alluded to, although they approached it in a way that is biased by some fairly recent innovations in Christian theology dating only to the mid-19th century.

A deeper theme that dates from the earliest Hebrew traditions of the Old Testament is the idea of the human body as a sacred thing, not to be treated like other material objects. The Old Testament prohibited tattooes, ritual cutting, and other practices common among ancient tribes other than the Israelites. The Christian tradition carried these ideas forward in various ways, but always with a sense that the human body is not simply a collection of atoms, but is a "substance" (a philosophical term) which stands in a unique relation to the soul.

The problem with trying to relate these ideas to modern practices is that hardly anybody, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, pays any attention to them any more. What with heart transplants, cochlear implants, artificial lenses for cataract surgery, and so on, we are well down the road of messing with the human body to repair or improve its functions. And because something is sacred does not mean necessarily that it cannot be touched or altered in any way. The best that I can extract from this tradition in regard to the question of RFID implants, is to encourage people to give this matter special consideration. It's not the same thing as carrying around a fanny pack, or a key ring, or even a nose ring. Once it's in there, you've got it, and it can be anything from a minor annoyance to major surgery to get it out. My bottom line is that with RFID implants, you're messing with the sacred again. And there has to be some meaning to the facts that this general sort of notion was applied first on a large scale by one of the most evil governments of the twentieth century, and that it used to be an imaginary fear latched onto by mentally unbalanced individuals. Only, I don't know what the meaning is.

Sources: The articles "Hands On" by Amal Graafstra and "RFID Inside" by Kenneth Foster and Jan Jaeger appear in the March 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum, accessible free (as of this writing) at http://spectrum.ieee.org/mar07/4940 and http://spectrum.ieee.org/mar07/4939, respectively.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kaydee,

    I'd like to make one correction if I may. In this section:

    "which are a kind not officially approved for human use yet (they're sold to veterinarians for pet-tracking purposes)"

    You note that I have pet tags from the veterinarian. That is not actually true. The EM4102 in my left hand and the Philips HITAG S 2048 tag in my right are not approved for any implantation in any body. I did plenty of research to confirm the glass was the same as used in animal and pet tags, however I had to sterilize them myself, and the data protocol (air interface) is not ISO standard for animal implants. The key difference for me though is that these glass tags do not have an anti-migration coating on them which allows me to replace/remove them with much greater ease than a tag actually designed for implantation.

    Also, I would like to comment on your take on the body sacred. From my point of view, a DIYer who considers the risk and obtains an implant in order to further his or her study of the technology,to use it in a personal context, for their own purposes, with their own projects... this is a very sacred thing indeed.

    On the other hand (pun!), I feel a consumer obtaining a chip to be trendy or to blindly make use of a commercialized, public use context solution of convenience, without taking into full consideration just what the risks are to both their health or their privacy... those people really are just treating their body like a wallet.