Human-implantable RFID chips: Some ethical and privacy concerns

By Molly Merrill
12:00 AM

VeriChip, a company that makes microchips which can be implanted in humans, has sold 7,000 chips, approximately 2,000 of which have been placed in people. The company’s present focus is tagging “high-risk” patients, such as those with diabetes, heart conditions or Alzheimer’s.

“People who wear identification tags and bracelets often remove them because they do not like the way they look or feel,” said Allison Tomek, vice president, investor relations and corporate communications at Applied Digital. “The VeriChip is the only medical device that is guaranteed to always be with you to provide your identification and medical records information in an emergency situation.”

VeriChip has offered hospitals free RFID scanners to encourage use of the chips, but acceptance has been limited, and the potential risks associated with RFID may be to blame.

A June 2007 American Medical Association report on RFID tracking listed several of the risks involved with microchip implantation, including: migration of the chip under the skin, electromagnetic and electrosurgical interference with devices and defibrillators, and the potential risks associated with certain pharmaceuticals.  The report also listed privacy, social and security issues as potential risks.

An August 2006 study on the security of the VeriChip appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. The article focused primarily on security implications for authentication uses, but it also touched on the implications of identification as applied to medical information.

Because the VeriChip does not grant access to any product or piece of data with immediate financial value, the article claimed that the risks are less obvious. However, it gave the example of a drug addict who might choose to adopt a false identity in order to obtain narcotics.

In this hypothetical case, the drug addict would have to be very determined; he would need to build an “active VeriChip” that would use a battery instead of being powered by a reader signal. The thief could then simply hide the device on his body, so that when the physician scanned him his new ID would “pop up” on the reader.

One of the co-authors of the JAMIA study, John Halamka, MD, also wrote an article entitled “Straight from the Shoulder” that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2005.  In this article, Halamka said that the device does not generate harmful heat, is safe for MRIs and from MRI magnets, and cannot be deactivated by a magnetic field or trigger airport security.

Halamka has a VeriChip implanted in his body, and claims that he has experienced no problems. “As a physician and CIO I wanted to investigate the medical, ethical, privacy, and IT implications of implanted RFID so that patients could make an informed choice,” Halamka said.

Halamka said that the most beneficial thing about having the implant was that “if I am in an accident and cannot communicate, a treating physician can identify me and retrieve my medical history.”

Although he said he has not fully explored the ethical considerations associated with microchip implantation, Halamka did briefly touch on issues that were raised concerning microchip implantation into a patient who was not able to give consent.

Given that these microchips have been marked specifically for use in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, the consent issue stands out. Halamka concludes that an Alzheimer’s patient would have to give consent for implantation in the early stages of treatment.

“People who oppose this technology are usually misinformed about its capabilities,” said Tomek. “It is an RFID implantable microchip for high-risk patients and is purely voluntary. It is not a GPS or tracking device. There are people who believe this is an invasion of privacy, but again, this is a purely voluntary procedure designed to help at-risk patients in an emergency situation.” 

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