ROCKAWAY, NJ – The world’s first human Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) implant is now being used to monitor more than 2,000 people worldwide, according to VeriChip, the developer and patent-holder of the medical microchip technology.
Hailed by doctors and hospitals as a major advancement, the chip also has raised concerns for its use by some employers and foreign governments to grant access to highly sensitive work areas.
In the medical arena, this revolutionary technology provides increased protection especially for high-risk patients suffering from such debilitating diseases as diabetes, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, and for patients with chronic heart conditions.
“Often these patients end up in the (emergency room) unconscious or unable to communicate,” according to a spokesman for VeriChip, a subsidiary of Applied Digital. In such cases, medical personnel scan for the chip in the upper-right arm above the triceps muscle, the location designated by the medical community for insertion of the RFID tag. If for some reason, a scan of that area cannot be completed (such as in an amputee patient), the chip would be placed in the left arm.
A local anesthetic is given to numb the area and the device, enclosed in medical-grade glass, is inserted below the skin. According to the VeriChip spokesman, the only information stored in the chip is a 16-digit identifier.
“Once the chip’s 16-digit unique identifier is found, it can be entered into the subscriber registry through a password-protected database,” the spokesman said. Doctor and patient determine ahead of time what information should be stored in the database to aid in treatment.
In March of 2005, Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J., became one of the first hospitals to adopt the human-implant RFID technology.
“It is sometimes difficult to contact people, especially for complex medical histories,” Dr. Joseph Feldman, chair of emergency trauma at the hospital, said. “This technology expedites care.”
The Hackensack hospital stores the medical information on a password-protected database that meets Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) standards, Feldman said.
The medical facility currently is exploring ways to expand the use of the chip to aid in the treatment of some diseases. For example, Feldman said, work “that could revolutionize the diabetic industry” is under way to utilize the chip in determining a patient’s core temperature and blood glucose level on a constant basis.
Health and Privacy Concerns
While doctors and hospitals praise the chip as a medical advancement, the technique is not without its detractors, particularly among privacy advocates.
RFID has a “tremendous potential for abuse” according to Katherine Albrect, director and founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN). “A key in your pocket is more secure than a chip.”
She also questioned the safety of the chip in certain medical procedures. “The chip can burn you in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine and can shift towards the electro-magnetic field” used in the procedure, Albrect said, adding the patient “would do better to wear a medical bracelet.”
However, both VeriChip and Hackensack’s Feldman disputed that claim, citing FDA approval of the chip for use in MRIs. The VeriChip spokesman also suggested that patients, when possible, should alert medical technicians about all internal medical devices prior to screening procedures.
According to a statement released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “our guidance document requires manufacturers to assess MRI compatibility. However, these devices are Class II exempt and we do not normally see submissions if they meet the requirements of the guidance.” The full report can be found at: http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/ode/guidance/1541.html.
As for privacy concerns, Feldman said RFID is a more secure technology than other standard security options. “Once you give away your fingerprint or retina, that’s it. You can’t get it back,” Feldman said. “(The chip is) really a lot more private.”
Perhaps adding fuel to the privacy debate are reports that the technology has been used by some companies and foreign governments to monitor workers, and that hackers already may have produced a “counterfeit reader.”
In 2004, in an attempt to thwart ongoing government corruption, 18 staff members of the Mexican government received the chip implant to allow them access to secure areas within the attorney general’s headquarters in Mexico City.
Closer to home, in February 2006, two employees at CityWatcher.com, a Cincinnati-based video surveillance company, voluntarily received the implant in order to gain access to their secure data center.
Albrect, who co-authored the book “Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move With RFID,” warned that “once people begin ‘voluntarily’ getting chipped to perform their job duties, it won’t be long before pressure gets applied to those who refuse.”
But, noting that the implant is a “passive system” and only responds to a scanner at a read range of about six inches, the VeriChip spokesman said it is “not a stand-alone (security) device” and should be used in tandem with other security measures in high-security situations.
As for reports that someone may have developed a “counterfeit reader,” the VeriChip spokesman said “all he will get is that 16-digit unique identifier. No identification information is actually stored on the chip.”