Age of implantable RFIDs nears

Published 5 June 2006

As they say — just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you; sooner rather than later the fact that a paranoid complains that the government has implanted a microchip in his body would not mean that the government — or the local hospital — has not done so

Your typical paranoid always believes that the CIA has implanted a radio chip in his brain. Soon it will be more difficult to prove that paranoid wrong. Radio frequency identification (RFID) chips implanted into human beings hold the promise of improving patient care, particularly in emergency settings, tracking criminals and child-molesters released back into the community, and also tracking terrorists: Imagine capturing a terrorist, putting him under anesthetics, implanting an RFID chip in him, then letting him lead the good guys back to his comrades and associates. In the first examples of RFID use, privacy issues will have to be addressed first.

Writing in the 28 July 2005, edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, John Halamka, MD, chief information officer at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School and an emergency room physician, says the chip implanted in his upper right arm would allow anyone with a handheld RFID reader to scan his arm and obtain his sixteen-digit medical identifier. The chip, consisting of several small components encased in an unbreakable glass capsule, was implanted in Halamka’s arm in December 2004 with only a local anesthetic. Any authorized health care worker can visit a secure web site hosted by the chip manufacturer and retrieve information about his identity, and that of his primary care physician, who could provide medical history details.

For emergency medicine residents who often spend hours trying to determine the identify of John or Jane Doe patient, properly encrypted technology could prove to be a boon in helping to avoid unwanted medical interventions. “For patients with Alzheimer’s disease who wander away from home, an identifier that enables caregivers to identify non-verbal or confused patients and determine their health care preferences could be very desirable,” Halamka says.

There are problems, though. Current technology and lack of specific privacy regulations could enable spammers to track him in a manner similar to computer spyware which infests computers after visits to certain Internet sites. There is also the issue of inserting chips in patients incapable of proving informed consent. Moreover, technology hackers continue to be one step ahead of developers and have shown the ability to break the encryption of existing chips used to purchase gasoline and provide automobile security. Also, the technology is not cheap: Each chips costs $200 and a reader costs $650.

The chip implanted in Dr. Halamka is expected to last at least ten years, can safely undergo magnetic resonance imaging, and passes through airport security systems without incident. If he wishes to upgrade the chip, it would require minor surgery.