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August 3, 2004

A public radio commentary

Wal-Mart keeps track of its inventory using something called an RFID chip. This small microchip allows products to be recorded automatically by a radio receiver. The RF in RFID stands for radio frequency. Many roads use the same technology to keep track of tolls. And oddly enough, the Mexican Government uses it to track its Attorney General and his staff - all 160 of them. Yes, that's right, they've starting putting these chips into people.

Doctors implant them just under the skin, usually in the arm. The simple procedure feels about like getting a shot. The doctors never remove it, nor are there batteries to replace: The chip lies dormant under the skin until read by the radio receiver, drawing energy from the radio waves. In the case of Mexico, the chips let the Attorney General's staff roam the secure areas of his office without flashing a badge - the implanted chip grants them access.

These devices aren't approved yet in U.S., and I hope they never will be. This implant seems new and revolutionary, but it's just one more step down a perilous path we've been taking since World War Two.

We feared at the end of the war the world of George Orwell's 1984. But it isn't Orwell's Big Brother Police Force and their in-your-face technology that menaces us. Since World War Two we've moved step-by-step toward a system where a police state need no longer be brutal, or openly inquisitorial, or even omnipresent in public consciousness. Police have instead moved in the direction of anticipating and forestalling crime. So, the trend is toward tracking every citizen throughout his or her life - geographically, commercially, and biologically.

This began soon after World War Two with records of fingerprints, extensive paper dossiers on citizens, and then computer punch cards to sort through files. It evolved into the electronic databases and biological profiling we have today. These new chips are just a way to quietly add a page to an electronic dossier.

Still, the potential for abuse is enormous. In the future, perhaps, when someone approaches a sales desk their credit info would be displayed automatically for the sales staff. Or, the state could track the public movements of everyone. As a result people would be less likely to do public activities, to engage, for example, in protests that offend powerful interests.

So, at first implanting a tiny radio-frequency chip may seem a painless way to keep order. But we should keep in mind the story of police work since World War Two: The most insidious technique is the one which makes itself felt the least, and which represents the least burden, yet lets every citizen be thoroughly known to the state.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises