Under Your Skin

In April, the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, Spain, added something special something to their list of perks for VIPs — microchip implants that carry not only status, but your tab.

Patrons who elect to undergo the procedure with an on-site doctor graft their bar account to their skin for the next 20 years. If demand is high enough, the club’s sister operation in Rotterdam will likely follow suit.

The technology involved? RFID, short for Radio Frequency IDentification. Around since the late ˜80s, the chip requires no power, is often smaller than a grain of sand, and is capable of carrying a startling amount of data.

Obviously it’s designed to do more than alleviate the drag of waiting for your credit card receipt while sipping an apple martini. Imagine, for example, monitoring the health of your grandmother by checking whether or not she’s opened her medication bottle lately. If life hangs in the balance, your complete medical history, embedded in the palm of your hand, could help doctors determine a course of treatment even if you’re unconscious.

Imagine the possibilities of tracking down a kidnapped child within hours because police were able to locate the device her parents implanted at birth.

The chip has legitimately beneficial purposes that are hard to ignore, and to see it reduced to something as retarded as a bar time-saver is sad. To see the potential abuse corporations and the government are just waiting to dole out once the technology becomes more widespread is even worse.

As someone who values my privacy, I often make purchases with cash instead of a credit or debit card. I forgo the convenience of plastic because I know stores and companies I do business with mine the purchase data to sell to someone else. I avoid “club cards” for the same reason — the discount isn’t worth the database entry.

That option is no longer valid as American currency is now embedded with these tiny receivers. And unlike a UPC symbol, each one is unique — meaning each new $20 bill in one’s wallet emits a personalized signal from up to 40 feet away. If so inclined, someone could track the entire life cycle of the money, from the Treasury to the bank, through the ATM, and to my purchase. My desire to be left alone has just been shot right out the window.

The applications are even more staggering than that. Since each is unique, each object can be tracked separately, too. Every shirt bought, every can of soda drunk, it can all theoretically be traced back to you. Would you care to share how many pairs of jeans you own with Wal-Mart? I don’t think so.

Worse still, this technology can be used for identification fraud and other crimes. Anyone with proper frequencies can retrieve stored information from a distance. It might elicit a quiet chuckle to know those drunken sods at the Baja Beach Club could have their bank account literally beamed out of them without their knowledge, but if it’s that easy it’s also no more difficult to steal a Social Security number or identity. The amount of snatchable information is limited only to what the user puts on it. For many lazy people, an RFID chip would become the ultimate Google AutoFill button.

True, these are all worst-case scenarios. The infrastructure needed to implement wide-scale usage of RFID transmitters is years away and figuring out who owns what information and how it’s coordinated with legislation is still on the drawing board.

But the technology is here, and it’s evolving. Aside from the fact that current designs are already well hidden, newer versions can be printed onto a product’s box — that exclamation point in the fine print could be hiding a transmitter. Before you know it, the presence of an RFID spy chip could be completely undetectable, meaning that every time you purchase something, you’re unwillingly giving the seller the right to monitor it (and you) for years to come.

In the United States we’re beset by institutions actively trying to learn all they can about their subjects as a form of control. Think they only want to learn about your travel plans? Think again. Giving this level of personal access to corporations (to say nothing of our Orwellian bureaucracy) will open the door to surveillance that is undesired and unconstitutional. It’s sad to think of the level of spying this engengers, but given the track records of multinationals and the government, I wouldn’t hold anything against them.

I’m not an opponent to advances in technology; as I’ve noted, there are intrinsic benefits for on-call information retrieval. However, the right to individual privacy trumps all others, and potential abuse does not outweigh the benefits.

Just because we have the wherewithal to track a person’s travels anywhere on the planet using global positioning systems doesn’t mean we should. Pepsi may be able to adapt its supply shipments by knowing exactly what quantity each location sells, but you can bet any derived profits will be shipped overseas like everything else.

If I knew that this technology could be used only for good, I’d be more positive about its implications. Human nature, however, has taught me to think otherwise. For every child saved, another could be stalked by an abusive parent. The risks are just too great.

In the end, I just don’t trust anyone with that much information. Privacy is very important — many still believe in the old adage: “Don’t Tread on Me.” I don’t even care that the entire procedure is currently voluntary. The whole idea is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

But hey — if you do buy into it, you can dance and drink and only wait for the other shoe to drop instead of your bar bill. Nifty.