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INVASIVE IDS?

An FDA-approved chip implant raises big-brother concerns.

It appears that the effort to implant microchips into humans is not only alive and well but moving ever closer to getting under everyone's skin.

Delray Beach firm VeriChip, the nation's only FDA-approved company allowed to produce microchips for injection into people, got a boost recently from the American Medical Association.

The AMA said such devices "may help to identify patients, thereby improving the safety and efficiency of patient care." But the council warned that the devices' safety and security are unclear.

That was enough to create a stir in the technology and medical worlds as well as among privacy and religious folks. And enough to put a smile on VeriChip's face.

Scott Silverman, chief executive officer of VeriChip, says the primary aim is to help high-risk medical patients such as those with diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer and heart conditions.

The chip, implanted in the upper right arm, allows medical personnel to access a patient's medical history in the event the person is unconscious or otherwise unresponsive. The person's data is stored in VeriChip's database.

Sounds a little spooky, and makes George Orwell seem more like a prophet than a novelist.

Silverman says it could save lives, "it's fairly safe and there have been no side effects." VeriChip's sister corporation, Digital Angel Corp., has been implanting chips in pets for 15 years.

"It should be first and foremost voluntary," Silverman says. "No one should ever be forced to get an implantable microchip."

But Katherine Albrecht, a co-author of the book Spychips, whom I'm sure drives Silverman crazy, argues that VeriChip is taking us down a treacherous road.

"You can feel the writing on the wall that this is the direction our society is moving," said Albrecht, who received her doctorate in education from Harvard, specializing in adult development and consumer education.

The chip uses technology called a Radio Frequency Identification tag.

Albrecht points out that the RFID technology used in the chips is becoming increasingly pervasive throughout our society as merchants use it to track inventory and purchases.

"If everybody had a chip in them ... we would be blissfully unaware of big brother," Albrecht said.

She says the program is flawed because if there are problems accessing VeriChip's database, the chip will prove useless. And, she says, as the AMA pointed out, there are questions about patient security.

And the religious have concerns of biblical proportions: tagging people with such devices reads like a precursor to the "mark of the beast."

Silverman says his company's focus is on medical patients. And the chip they use is "passive" or, simply stated, it does not emit a strong signal. To read the chip, medical personnel must use a scanner and be within 12 inches.

And he says the data is stored in a facility as secure as any of the best. He does admit once you have a chip, it could be used for other "applications." You can tie financial accounts to them and other data.

He points out a year ago one company injected two employees with chips for security reasons. In addition, nightclubs in Barcelona, Spain, Rotterdam, Holland, and Edinburgh, Scotland, use them so patrons can access VIP lounges and make purchases.

A bit much for me. The only chip I want in my body is a potato chip, maybe a tortilla chip. Definitely not a microchip.

The Consumer's Edge is a twice-monthly column to help consumers in the marketplace. Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727)892-2332.

How do the chips work?

- The chips are inserted in the upper right arm with a a hypodermic-type needle. The cost of the procedure: $200.

- VeriChip uses a patented process, called bio-bind, to secure the chip to muscle tissue and prevent migration.

- Medical personnel wave a scanner within 12 inches of the chip. A 16-digit identification appears to identify the person.

- VeriChip maintains the patient's records in its database. Customers pay an annual fee, from $20 to $80, to keep a medical file.

Here's the edge

The American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs recommended that radio frequency identification (RFID) devices can be used to help identify patients, improve patient care and secure access to patient clinical information. But the AMA cautioned that the "efficacy and security'' of the devices has not been established. As precautions, the AMA said, physicians implanting such devices should:

- disclose the medical uncertainties of RFIDs to patients as part of the informed consent process.

- strive to protect patients' privacy by storing confidential information only on RFID devices with informational security similar to that required of medical records.

- support research into safe, effective and potential nonmedical uses of RFID devices in people.

FAST FACTS

VeriChip Corp.

CEO: Scott Silverman

Annual revenue: $30-million

Products: Includes anklets for newborns as part of an infant anti-abduction system used in hospitals; and the VeriMed implantable chip.

Sister company: Digital Angel Corp., which produces implantable chips for pets and livestock. The company has annual revenues of $60-million.

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