Injecting RFIDs Into The Immigration Mess, Literally

Written by Evan Schuman
May 19th, 2006

Applied Digital CEO Scott Silverman was a guest this week on a Fox News show called Fox & Friends First and he was there to give the immigration debate a shot in the arm. Or to implant his company into the middle of this controversy.

No matter which version of wordplay is used, he was there to argue that the U.S. government should buy tons of his implantable RFID chip and literally inject them into the arms of immigrants who are guest workers in the U.S.

The chips would come from Applied Digital subsidiary VeriChip and are the same ones that a handful of people have already had injected into their arms, including the CIO for the Harvard Medical School.

On the show?Applied Digital offered a copy of the transcript?Silverman said the injection would be entirely voluntary. “It’s an election on the part of the immigrant or an election on the part of the government, when we ultimately define what that technology is that no one has defined yet,” he said. (The second half of that quote says nothing, but I kept it in for any philosophy and logic majors who want to try and puzzle it out.)

Let’s take a closer look. First, the “election on the part of the government” would certainly impact how optional it was. More to the point, though, how optional would it be as a practical matter? You’re a Mexican worker and you’re trying to get a job, surrounded by others who will gladly take any gig you decline.

Would you dare to refuse, knowing that your rivals may instead comply? With the subtext of American security agents on the lookout for terrorists, would you really want to attract the kind of attention that comes from refusing an identification technique? Lest we forget how volatile it is out there, U.S. border patrol agents shot and killed a man on May 18 as he was trying to drive his sports utility vehicle from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico.

The reality is this is not at all going to seen as truly voluntary. OK, but is there a legitimate reason for workers to resist? Absolutely. This has been implanted in relatively small numbers of people for a relatively short period of time. No longterm large-scale testing has done and there is no way to know what kind of health risks are posed by inserting this little glass tube into a person’s upper arm.

What about privacy? Silverman was asked: “A lot of people would say that’s it’s dangerous, that it’s invasive, it could be used to infringe on our civil liberties by tracking us.” His reply avoids the first two-thirds of the question?I’d do the same if I was trying to hawk what he’s hawking?and narrowly addresses the tracking issue.

“This is not a locating device. This has no GPS capabilities in it whatsoever,” he said. “It is purely an identification device that reads a unique 16-digit identifier with a proprietary scanner within a very short range. It’s a passive device with no power source under the skin that ties to a database where the relevant information is stored.”

As far as I can tell, this is absolutely true, but it’s also misleading. Yes, it’s true in the sense that satellites won’t?at this time?be able to track legal aliens as they move around town. But if a government or business decides to place enough of those readers in strategic locations?outside bars, gunshops, libraries, political offices and even tollbooths?people theoretically could be tracked.

Silverman also said that the U.S. government was considering this. “We have talked to many people in Washington about using it as an application for a guest worker program. But we cannot say today that they have actually bought it for immigration purposes,” he said.

But let’s get away from these trivial life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness issues. What does this mean for the RFID and EPC industries? This effort?even if it fails?is a gift-wrapped bow-topped special keepsake for every RFID opponent in the world.

It combines over-reaching and intrusiveness with a healthy dose of racism (Quick show of hands: How many people think this was designed with Canadians in mind?). That’s just what the industry needs now. Ironically, the RFID movement is starting to get some serious traction, with Proctor & Gamble and others starting to truly prove ROI beyond the supply-chain. Now is not the time to give ammunition to those that want to derail RFID. But if someone indeed wants to do that, they have found an ideal spokesman in Scott Silverman.


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