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Chipping away at our freedom

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | September 15 2005
By Marcia Thurnbauer

Has anybody else been wondering what former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has been up to since he left his position as U.S. secretary of health and human services earlier this y ear? It turns out he assumed a position as a director of VeriChip Corp., a division of Florida-based Applied Digital and a leading developer of human implanted microchip technology, also known as radio-frequency identification.

Such devices have been used for years to help identify pets that are lost or otherwise separated from their owners. All the animal shelter needs to do is scan the pet. The microchip will reveal a code that can be used to locate the owner and -presto! - Fido is reunited with his grateful human family.

But what about more important lost (or kidnapped) souls, such as children or wandering Alzheimer's patients?

It isn't much of a leap to see how corporations might be motivated (by profit, of course) to develop attractive human applications for this technology.

Already, VeriChip is marketing the implants to people for medical "peace of mind." It seems the chips can provide access to a patient's medical records in case of an emergency.

In Spain, a nightclub is offering microchips that function as sort of implanted ATMs; patrons can pay for cover charges and drinks simply by passing their arms under a scanner.

Using global positioning systems, the possibility exists that people with implanted chips could be tracked and located. (Useful if one is lost or for convicts on the lam, but who wants to feel like a perpetually endangered species wearing the human equivalent of a radio collar?)

Research is also being conducted to record neurological activity in "healthy" individuals that can be stored on chips that are then implanted into people who are paralyzed or depressed in the hope of someday creating artificial neurological impulses that can generate greater mobility or a sunny disposition.

If all of this is eerily reminiscent of the 1970s sci-fi drama "The Six Million Dollar Man" ("We have the technology . . . We can rebuild him . . . Make him better, stronger, faster"), consider that microchip R&D is racing forward much more quickly than most of the public realizes.

But do we really want science fiction to become reality? At what point does a technology that offers certain conveniences become so indoctrinated that we wake up one day only to realize that virtually every aspect of our lives can be tracked, traced, regenerated and scanned 24/7?

If you think that's far-fetched, can you imagine living without a credit card these days? Many merchants won't accept anything but plastic. Who ever thought paying for certain things - like an airline ticket or a hotel room - with cash would be a suspicious activity?

Yet all of our purchases, and much of our physical movement, can now be tracked via our credit trail. What happens if the day comes when you can't board an airplane, rent a car or charge dinner without an implant that identifies you or debits your bank account?

I imagine some folks would accept this trade-off as another necessary sacrifice of freedom for greater convenience and potential safety. (That certainly happened with the USA Patriot Act after 9-11.)

But once this proverbial horse is out of the barn, we may all find ourselves trampled by a technology that started out with good intentions but evolves into an insidious method of population control as utilization reaches critical mass.

This technology will catch on quickly. Before we blindly embrace it, we need to carefully consider the potential consequences and publicly debate its acceptable limits.

Fortunately, at least one Wisconsin legislator has foreseen the implications of radio-frequency identification if it ever becomes an involuntary requirement. Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids) has introduced a bill that would prohibit anyone (including the government and employers) from requiring people to receive microchip implants.

In his new role with VeriChip, Thompson has announced that he will have a chip implanted. (In fact, it may be a done deal by now.)

But don't be lulled by a popular former politician with a newfound profit motive.

I bet he will say it didn't hurt a bit.

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