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By Joel Klebanoff

Big Brother Gets Under the Skin

Feel free to call me an old fogy, a dinosaur, a Luddite, a technophobe, or any other epithet that suggests I'm out of step with modernity. I don't like to think of myself that way, but no matter what insults you might hurl at me for adopting this attitude, there's absolutely no way I'm going to have a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded in any part of my body unless some evil government employs military force to do it against my will. Apparently—and to me, surprisingly—that stance is not unanimous in the world today. According to a January 6, 2006, Reuters news item, some people are happily having it done with no encouragement whatsoever from the government, evil or otherwise.

The people who get RFID chips implanted under their skin, typically somewhere in the hand, wrist, or arm, usually do so to allow their gadgets, including computers and electronic door locks, to identify them with complete certainty (assuming, of course, that there are no hackers out there capable of reading the signal and cloning the RFID chips; oh no, that could never happen, never in a million years), without the need to key in any IDs or passwords. One of the people quoted in the story said, "In the worst case scenario, if I'm in the alley naked, I want to still be able to get in [my house]." I don't know, but if you frequently find yourself naked, in the back alley, and locked out of your house, I think it's time to cut back a little on your drinking. I don't mean to be paternalistic. It's just a suggestion.

By way of background, so you can get an idea of where my head is at (not someplace that most sane people want to go), I should point out that I've never understood the reasoning behind body piercing. Having grown up in the culture that I did, I rarely give a second thought to female ear piercing. Then again, I'm too chronologically and psychologically old to be able to see a man with an earring without silently (or otherwise) chuckling to myself. However, despite having become accustomed to earrings on women, in my rare rational moments I can't understand why anyone—male or female—would have their ears or any other body part pierced just for fashion. As far as I'm concerned, it's OK with me. What they, of their own free will, do with their bodies is none of my business. I'm just saying that I don't understand the rationale behind it.

I don't know which part of the anatomy was the first to be pierced in the course of human history, but, regardless of the location, I often wonder how this practice got started. I find it very hard to believe that someone woke up one morning, looked outside, and said, "Jeez, what an incredibly gray and dismal day! I think I'll liven things up a little bit by punching a hole in my body and inserting something into the opening."

Even if one insane person did have that thought, how did the idea spread? Maybe the next-door neighbor spotted the first person and said, "Oh, that Mabel is such a trendsetter! Why didn't I think of that? Harry, bring me one of my knitting needles. I'm going to stick it through my earlobe." Who has thoughts like that? I can't imagine. Or, more to the point, I'd rather not imagine.

Of course, RFID chips aren't being inserted just for fashion, but my squeamishness about foreign objects being inserted into my body is probably the primary reason why I can't see ever getting one of them planted in me. If anyone is going to intentionally puncture my skin and place something under it, I want the person doing the puncturing to have a legitimate medical degree, and I want the inserted gizmo to have a rational therapeutic purpose. A pacemaker, if necessary to keep me alive, would be acceptable. An RFID chip would not.

Actually, I wouldn't mind if one of these things was placed under one particular piece of my skin, but I don't think the mohel held onto it after he removed it when I was about eight days old, so that's probably not an option anymore. If some relative kept it all this time, I really don't want to know about it. And, besides, because it's no longer attached to me, putting an RFID chip under that piece of skin wouldn't serve any useful purpose anyway, at least not one that I can think of. If you don't understand this paragraph, I'm sorry, but I don't think MC Press will allow me to explain it here.

Getting back to what is actually happening rather than my fears about it, who is doing the inserting? I'm glad you asked. According to the news item, it can be done by a surgeon, tattoo artist, or veterinarian. (I sometimes have poor reading habits. I had to reread the sentence to realize that meat eaters are acceptable.) The item also provided a link to a Web site that offers a forum for people who either want to implant or have already implanted RFID chips. Someone posted a summary of how contributors to the forum said they had their implants done. It seems that, in addition to the inserters listed in the news item, some people are having it done at piercing shops, others are doing it themselves with home needle kits, and friends are doing it to each other. With the exception of the surgeon, there isn't a single job classification on that list that I'd feel comfortable entrusting this procedure to. Not even vets. What can they offer me? If I behave and don't bite them during the procedure, are they going to give me a dog treat afterward? Besides, I leave large fingernail gouge marks in the armrests of my dentist's chair when I go in just for a regular cleaning. I don't think I could promise to refrain from biting while someone inserts something under my skin.

I'm certainly not going to trust any of my three friends to do it, at least not for another four or five years and then only if they spend that time in earnest studies at Harvard Medical School.

Even if I could get over my squeamishness, let's analyze this. I'm supposed to spend good money to have a foreign object, possibly one carrying an invisible, but deadly infection, placed somewhere inside my body in order to allow any RFID reader I happen to pass to be able identify me. I don't think so. I already have a genuine big brother. I don't need a metaphorical one.

One person has a solution to the privacy issue. He's developing a fabric shield that will block the signals. I don't mind wearing a glove here in Toronto in the winter, but I don't want to have to wear one, on just one hand, all of the time, except when I'm near an RFID reader that I want to be able to identify me. If I did that, I'd have to learn how to do Michael Jackson's moonwalk in order to complete the look. Who needs that? Besides, if you're going to spend all day putting on and taking off the glove as required to maintain your privacy, why not just reach into your pocket and get your plain old house key instead?

The news item suggested that some of the advantages of using an implanted RFID chip were that it can't be lost or stolen and, if you change your mind or need to replace the chip, it can be removed easily. Hmmm. It sounds to me like there's a little bit of a contradiction in those claims. And if somebody is determined to break into my home, I'd much rather have the thief use his or her light fingers to lift an old-style key from my pocket while I'm distracted, rather than rip the chip out from under my skin with his or her fingernails. But maybe that's just me. I've already told you how squeamish I am about unconventional medical procedures.

Sorry, folks. I think I'll pass on this latest, greatest thing.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.



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