Microchips, Privacy and the Abuse of Technology

In discussing online privacy, government wiretapping/spying, kid tracking via GPS cellphone and other privacy related issues friends often joke with me, “Soon they’ll be implanting the microchips in us.” Good morning, here it is.

This story, “Insurers to Test Implantable Microchip,” discusses the idea of putting microchips with individual health histories under the skin of chronically ill patients:

In a new test program, Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey plans to implant patients suffering from chronic diseases with a microchip that will give emergency room staff access to their medical information and help avoid costly or serious medical errors, the insurer said on Friday.

Horizon plans to announce on Monday that it is teaming up with Hackensack University Medical Center in a pilot program where 280 patients regularly treated at the hospital will be implanted with a chip containing a code. The chip would allow emergency room personnel to retrieve a patient’s medical record if the individual can’t communicate.

In one view of the world that seems not only reasonable but a great idea. But stop and think. Wouldn’t this be the “thin end of the wedge”?

How about: in order to get insurance you need to have one of these chips implanted? How about criminals/ex-cons? (Let’s start with convicted sex offenders — nobody has any sympathy for their rights.) Shouldn’t they have these chips so they could be monitored and tracked at all times as a crime deterrent?

And what about our kids? Wouldn’t this enable police to find missing or kidnapped children? Wouldn’t parents naturally want that kind of protection for their children? And heck, having a chip in your child’s arm is a lot better way to keep tabs on her/him than a GPS-enabled cell phone anyway.

Then there’s airport security. That process would get a lot faster and better if we could rely on information on implanted chips in people’s arms.

You can sense my sarcasm, but many of these uses seem plausible and even desirable from a certain point of view.

But what starts out as a well-meaning use of available technology becomes something that can very quickly be exploited and abused. Now all this might potentially be workable if the Congress, the courts and the executive branch could institute very strict safeguards to prevent the wrongful exploitation of such a system or its expansion beyond very limited purposes.

Unfortunately, we have a government that rather than protecting individual rights and privacy is doing the opposite: aggressively eroding personal privacy and civil liberties as quickly as you can say, “What Fourth Amendment?” And it aggressively seeks to quash any oversight or criticism of its actions with “national security” as the catch-all justification.

The US Supreme Court, especially with the recent Roberts and Alito appointments appears to be largely rubber-stamping the consolidation of abusive federal authority. Scalia in particular is the most unprincipled hypocrite in recent memory on The Court. A self-professed “strict constructionist,” Scalia should be pursuing “The Founders'” interest in individual rights against the abuses of a centralized authority. Instead, he’s the Bush Administration’s “yes-man” regardless of the issue. Thomas is right behind (get it?).

If it were before them today, I think there’s no question these guys would have clearly authorized Korematsu v. United States, the decision that cleared the way for the internment of US citizens of ethnic Japanese origin in relocation camps in 1944.

“Pressing public necessity” in time of war was the justification for this shameful episode. We are now in the “War Against Terror,” a war without end that can be invoked as needed by the government to justify a range of otherwise intolerable or, indeed, illegal behavior (e.g., domestic spying, wiretapping).

In the recent US Supreme Court decision Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld (pdf of opinion), which struck down the Bush administration’s plan to try Guantanamo detainees before military tribunals, Thomas issued a shrill dissent to the decision. One of the central points of his argument was that The Court had “disregard[ed] the commander-in-chief’s wartime decisions…”

Before I go too far down this path, the point is that we should be mindful of such lessons of history and not think we have evolved as a culture beyond them. We haven’t. More importantly, we shouldn’t assume our government will do the right (as in correct, ethical) thing. Rather than considering the “public good,” the system is now set up to yield the greatest benefit to those that have the greatest financial interest in any particular outcome.

As many before me have argued, technological development is very much a mixed blessing. Technology was viewed in the 1950s and 1960s as liberating us and creating more leisure time. It has done the opposite: made us more productive but enabled us to work more and harder. How many of you are just working all the time because technology makes it possible?

Privacy in our society is effectively gone. What we have in its place are tenuous (and limited) legal protections for our medical and financial information. That’s not a reason not to still be vigilant about individual privacy, however. We need to think very carefully about the implications of technology and how its potential uses (and abuses) may play out over time. Implantable microchips is just one instance of this dilemma.

And unfortunately, we must take individual responsibility and have informed opinions about these issues — and be vocal about our concerns. We can’t defer to politicians who say, “Trust us, this won’t be abused.” Because they will be the first to abuse it.

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3 Responses to “Microchips, Privacy and the Abuse of Technology”

  1. AhmedF Says:

    Wonderful writeup. Thank you.

  2. B.A. 183.1 | josetediosiii Says:

    […] https://gesterling.wordpress.com/2006/07/15/implantable-microchips-the-useabuse-of-technology/ […]

  3. Tracking Technology « oblivioustranquility Says:

    […] aggressively erodes personal privacy and civil liberties https://gesterling.wordpress.com/2006/07/15/implantable-microchips-the-useabuse-of-technology/ […]

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