Promise of RFID technology raises personal privacy concerns

When my parents adopted their dog, the humane society inserted a tiny microchip under the skin on her shoulder for future identification purposes if her tags are lost. Insertion of the chip costs about $50 and the proceeds are generally donated to benefit homeless animals. The animal version of the chip is neatly inserted under the skin into the muscle tissue using a syringe and is held in place by the scar tissue that develops around it over time. There’s nothing to it.
Of course, the animals don’t have a voice in the process. However, the owners do. The chip holds personal information about the owner of the pet, so it can be identified and returned home if lost.

So how do these organizations manage the personal information of pet owners? Typically the organizations identify use and collection practices in their privacy policies and look to govern themselves accordingly. Interestingly, one humane society included notice about communication purposes including “future solicitations” of a general nature. I’ll be interested to see how/if this notice changes if/when the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation comes into force. But I digress from the topic at hand.

We have the technology to microchip our pets, so the leap isn’t very far to micro-chipping humans so that, among other things, health-related information can be easily accessible anywhere, any time. Not a new concept by any means, though surely for some among us a controversial if not somewhat Orwellian notion.

Indeed, the concept of microchips for human use is not new. Experiments related to radio-frequency identification tags have been going on since the late 1980s. In the fall of 2002, a U.S. company received preliminary approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its microchips (about the size of a grain of rice) for use in humans.

Like the version for use in animals, the chip can be implanted in the upper arm at the triceps by way of a needle. Uses for the chip could range from banking, security and computer access, to identification (including health records) and even possibly as a GPS. The device was ultimately approved by the U.S. FDA, however, the technology has not been widely embraced for use in humans. Many countries continue to explore the value of operating systems for the improvement of health care — the long-term results of which have yet to be seen.

There appear to be some practical advantages to RFID tags. Access to bank accounts, for instance, would require not only a PIN number, but also the physical presence of the actual holder of the account. Not convenient perhaps if you are appointed power of attorney for an aging parent; however, being required to override the system could conceivably improve security for the account holder because sufficient authorizations would be required.

In terms of health records, the safety advantages are obvious. To the extent countries were to adopt this technology, an individual could receive medical attention in any such country whether or not they are in a position to be able to advocate for themselves. Information on the chip could include anything from insurance details, medications, to country of origin — the list is endless.

One obvious challenge is, of course, access to, storage, and destruction of valuable information that raises important privacy related concerns. Other important concerns have also been raised, including regarding the risk of oppression of human rights, medical complications, and the possibility of there being a link between implanted devices and cancer.

The problem with related cancer data is that animals (such as mice and dogs) have a significantly shorter life expectancy than humans and so while being potentially devastating news from a marketing/optics perspective, the results are not necessarily conclusive.

Vulnerability to theft of information has been tested and shown to be a real challenge from a security standpoint, so the security and privacy debates continue.

Like many advances, there needs to be a thoughtful analysis conducted regarding the risks and rewards associated therewith. RFID technology offers many benefits from tracking patient health records to fugitives. However, the impact to human rights and freedoms — if not sufficiently monitored and regulated — could have devastating results. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, or even if you sit in the middle, this discussion is certainly far from over.

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