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Published: Sunday, 9/23/2007

Boon or Big Brother?

WHEN do technological advances begin looking less like Star Trek and more like 1984? In the minds of some states' lawmakers, when employers insist on implanting microchips in workers that will record how often they head to the bathroom, how many smoke breaks they take, and if their half-hour lunches takes 35 minutes.

The California Legislature has passed a bill that, if signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would ban implantation of Radio-Frequency Identification Devices in people without their consent.

RFIDs are microchips only slightly larger than a grain of rice that can be tracked by scanners installed at checkpoints. The devices are already in use in passports, subway passes, toll road collection booths, and as theft protection in car keys. They also have been implanted under the skin of people to keep track of Alzheimer's patients, help Spanish VIPs avoid waiting in line at nightclubs, and identify Mexican government officials in case they're kidnapped.

Similar chips are implanted in pets in case they are lost or stolen, and they have even been suggested for children as a safeguard against kidnapping or becoming lost, raising the interesting question: How many potential lives saved are enough to justify such an invasion of privacy?

Obviously, for any parent whose child has become lost, run away, or been abducted, the answer is one.

The number is apparently somewhat higher, however, for lawmakers in Wisconsin and North Dakota, where bans have been passed; California, where, ironically, a ban awaits the signature of a former actor known as the Terminator, and Colorado, where a bill to ban human implantation is before a legislative committee.

These lawmakers are worried that use of RFIDs in humans signals the advent of Big Brother, and there is evidence this fear is widespread.

Last year, CityWatcher.com, a Cincinnati security firm that has since gone belly up, asked that some employees be voluntarily chipped to limit access to secure rooms. The company later dropped the program.

And in California, grade schools in Sutter County, north of Sacramento, required students to wear IDs containing microchips to monitor attendance. That program was also dropped after privacy complaints from parents.

Nevertheless, the technology is advancing. Currently, RFID tags are scanned from checkpoints rather than tracked, as happens with Global Positioning System technology. But can long-range tracking be far off? There is little question that implanting people with trackable microchips could save many, many lives.

Emergency medical personnel could have identity and medical information available for accident victims, mentally disabled patients who wander off from caretakers could be quickly found, and children who are lost or abducted could be traced in minutes.

The question is: at what risk of potential abuse? The answer to that question will not be found in some Rod Serlingesque epilogue about possible futures in The Twilight Zone. The technology is here, today, and the debate is just beginning.



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