Not Saussure

November 2, 2006

Times Watch: The Surveillance Society

Filed under: civil liberties, press — notsaussure @ 6:12 pm

From The Times’ account of the Surveillance Studies Network’s report on

The Surveillance Society

Global positioning satellites and microchips which can be implanted into a human’s body and emit radio signals are predicted to be used increasingly for tracking criminals and monitoring people, including the elderly. The microchips are currently used to track goods but are already being piloted among humans in the US. Elderly people suffering from degenerative diseases have had the chip implanted in their body so carers can locate them quickly, the report said.

Source: By 2016, they’ll be able to watch you everywhere – Britain – Times Online

Nope, and not just because you can’t implant global positioning satellites in people. It’s not quite what the report says, and I don’t think it’s technically possible.

The report describes (para 9.8.7) how

The first human use of RFID chips has been in elderly people suffering from degenerative diseases in the United States, and around 70 people with degenerative brain conditions have now been implanted to enable carers to locate them easily. Researchers and technological enthusiasts have also been implanting themselves with chips for several years, and at least one chain of Spanish nightclubs has offered patrons the chance to have cash and access privileges held on implanted chips. However a step-change occurred in February 2006 when a security company on Ohio, USA, implanted two of its workers with RFID chips to allow them to access company property. Although such an invasive procedure was carried out voluntarily, it raises enormous questions of the integrity of the body and privacy in relation to employers. It is also not entirely surprising that the call for everyone to be implanted is now being seriously debated on some technology websites.

RFID tags come in two flavours, passive and active. Passive ones don’t have a power source of their own; they use the electrical current induced in the antenna by the incoming radio frequency signal to power themselves up and send data encoded in the chip back to the reader. This means the smallest ones — suitable for implanting in animals or humans — can only transmit over a very short distance — no more than four or five inches. You can make larger ones — suitable for putting in a passport — that’ll work up to a few metres, but they’re be no good for putting in people because of the size of antenna you need.

Active ones have their own power source and can, in consequence, broadcast over much greater ranges.

The reference it provides for the claim about 70 people with degenerative brain conditions being implanted ‘to enable carers to locate them easily’ simply tells us that ‘The company involved is Verichip Corporation‘; they make make two sorts of RFID devices for patients, Verimed, a passive device the size of a grain of rice that’s implanted, and RoamAlert, an active device you wear like a wristwatch.

The idea behind Verimed is that it’s a bit like the things you can presently get implanted in your cat or dog that the vet can read if the creature’s brought in lost to him. Someone’s Verimed implant can carry their medical details and cross reference their ID to a central database, maintained by Verimed, where they’ve registered contact details, medial notes and so forth. The idea is that, if you’re brought in unconscious — or if you’re confused — the hospital can scan you and retrieve all your medical notes.

It can’t, because it lacks the power, communicate over more than an inch or so.

The idea behind RoamAlert is that it broadcasts signs that let staff in the hospital know where you are at any one time. It can also be used to control access and egress in the ward or hospital — doors don’t open unless you’re wearing a tag that tells them they can open for you — and it’s obviously useful in facilities where you’ve got confused patients.

That can communicate over larger ranges, because it’s got a battery to power the signals.

The two aren’t the same thing, though, and I don’t see how you could scale the Verimed chip up into something that could be used like RoamAlert. You can chip your cat so that if someone brings it in, the vet can scan him and find out who he belongs to. What you can’t do is implant him with something that enables you to press a button and find out, by GPS, that he’s stuck up a tree in the local park.

Between them, I think, the Surveillance Studies Network and The Times have conflated the two ideas, thus creating something even more scary than the reality but which, fortunately, isn’t doable because of the inherent limitations of the passive chip.

I make this point not to knock the report — many of its warnings seem very valid — but because I don’t think it helps to invent threats that are demonstrably untrue.

There’s more than enough reality in the report about which to worry without introducing imaginary threats.

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