I'm a Person, Not a Product
Chances are I'll forget a lot of things as the years go by — but my Social Security number will always be at the tip of my tongue.
Those nine numerals were etched deep into my memory when I was in college. They made up my student ID number. Exam results were posted only with this number. In this way, a person's identity was protected from grade snoopers and other mischief-makers.
It's a good thing I committed my government-assigned number to memory, for now I'm being asked to rattle it off more than ever (well, the last four digits, at least). Financial and other institutions use it to verify customers’ identity before giving out confidential information.
And it seems the world has turned upside-down from my college days: By sharing your Social Security number, you do the exact opposite of protecting yourself. You open yourself up to becoming the next victim of the crime known as identity theft.
The Federal Trade Commission (www.consumer.gov/idtheft) says your identity has been stolen when someone claiming to be you — using your Social Security number, credit-card number or other identifying information — makes purchases, opens new lines of credit or commits other kinds of fraud.
The FTC says people whose identities have been stolen can spend exorbitant amounts of time and money trying to clean up the mess thieves have made of their good name and credit record. The victim might lose job opportunities and be refused loans, education, housing or cars. They might even get arrested. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (idtheftcenter.org), an estimated 7 million American consumers became victims of identity theft in 2002 alone.
Applied Digital Solutions Co. (adsx.com) is pushing a new product for protecting one's identity — VeriChip. A miniaturized radio-frequency identification device about the size of the point of a ballpoint pen, it's implanted under the skin. When an external scanner sends energy through the skin, the dormant VeriChip is energized. The chip emits a signal containing the verification number. This number is displayed on the scanner and sent to a secure data-storage site through the Internet or by telephone. Whatever information is stored under that number, such as the identity of the number-holder, is transmitted.
If you think this sounds like science fiction, you're not alone. Yet eight states already have local authorized VeriChip centers. Normally the chip is installed by a physician in the fleshy part of the upper arm. With a pre-assembled chip inserter, “there is very little discomfort — less than getting a shot,” according to Applied Digital Solutions’ product literature. The company is promoting its VeriChip as “a universal means of identification.”
Wal-Mart has mandated that its top 100 suppliers have all their cases and pallets “chipped” by Jan. 1, 2005, using this technology. But it might take as long as 10 years for radio-frequency identification device tags to become inexpensive enough to put on individual items in stores. The latter would mean bar codes would cease to exist. No more scanning individual items. All the items in your shopping cart would transmit by radio what they are and how much they cost.
Already some people have voiced concerns about privacy. Couldn't someone employ the same scanner out in the parking lot to track what people are buying as they come out of the store? This issue has already been answered by making the radio-frequency identification devices work only once.
The reason I mention Wal-Mart is that it seems to me radio-frequency identification device tagging of people is like bar-coding people — treating them like “things” instead of people. And it really doesn't solve identity theft.
First, if a device can be implanted, it can also be removed. Personally, I would rather have a credit card stolen than a chip cut out of my arm! Second, this identification number is not secure. People who scan it will see it.
And what about the possibility of this same technology being turned against the radio-frequency identification device wearer? For example, if you can be tagged, can't you also be tracked?
Now, to be fair, there are some good uses for this technology. For example, people with known health conditions might stand to benefit by bearing an embedded chip that contains critical, life-saving information should they lose consciousness.
However, the idea of everyone being tagged with this technology sounds like an Orwellian “big brother” situation come to life. It would be like someone was always watching you.
I'll stick with identity cards, credit cards and cash — at least they won't stick to me!
Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.
- February 8-14, 2004