New technological advances could make us susceptible to perpetual surveillance
It received just a few column inches in a couple of papers, but the story I
read last week looks to me like a glimpse of the future. A company in Ohio called
CityWatcher has implanted radio transmitters into the arms of two of its workers.
The implants ensure that only they can enter the strongroom. Apparently it is
“the first known case in which US workers have been tagged electronically
as a way of identifying them”(1).
The transmitters are tiny (about the size of a grain of rice); cheap ($150
and falling fast(2)); safe and stable. Without being maintained
or replaced, they can identify someone for many years. They are injected, with
a local anaesthetic, into the upper arm. They require no power source, as they
become active only when scanned. There are no technical barriers to their wider
The company which makes these “radio frequency identification tags”,
the VeriChip Corporation, says they “combine access control with the location
and protection of individuals”(3). The chips can also
be implanted in hospital patients, especially children and people who are mentally
incapacitated. When doctors want to know who they are and what their medical
history is, they simply scan them in. This, apparently, is “an empowering
option to affected individuals”(4). For a while a school
in California toyed with the idea of implanting the chips in all its pupils(5).
A tag like this has a maximum range of a few metres. But another implantable
device emits a signal which allows someone to be found or tracked by satellite.
The patent notice says it can be used to locate the victims of kidnapping or
people lost in the wilderness(6).
There are, in other words, plenty of legitimate uses for implanted chips. This
is why they bother me. A technology whose widespread deployment, if attempted
now, would be greeted with horror, will gradually become unremarkable. As this
happens, its purpose will begin to creep.
At first the tags will be more widely used for workers with special security
clearance. No one will be forced to wear one; no one will object. Then hospitals
– and a few in the US are already doing this(7)- will
start scanning their unconscious or incoherent patients to see whether or not
they have a tag. Insurance companies might start to demand that vulnerable people
The armed forces will discover that they are more useful than dog tags for
identifying injured soldiers or for tracking troops who are lost or have been
captured by the enemy. Prisons will soon come to the same conclusion. Then sweatshops
in developing countries will begin to catch on. Already the overseers seek to
control their workers to the second; determining when they clock on, when they
visit the toilet, even the number of hand movements they perform. A chip makes
all this easier. The workers will not be forced to have them, any more than
they are forced to have sex with their bosses; but if they don’t accept
the conditions, they don’t get the job. After that, it surely won’t
be long before asylum seekers are confronted with a similar choice: you don’t
have to accept an implant, but if you refuse, you can’t stay in the country.
I think it will probably stop there. I don’t believe that you or I or
most comfortable, mentally competent people will be forced to wear a tag. But
it will become an increasingly acceptable means of tracking and identifying
people who could be a danger to themselves, or who could be at risk of sudden
illness or disappearance, or who are otherwise hard for companies or governments
to control. They will, on the whole, be people whose political voice is muted.
As it is with all such intrusions on our privacy, it won’t be easy to
put your finger on exactly what’s wrong with this technology. It won’t
really amount to a new form of control, as all the people who accept the implants
will already be subject to monitoring or tracking of one kind or another. It
will always be voluntary, at least to the extent that anything the state or
our employers want us to do is voluntary. But there is something utterly revolting
about it. It is another means by which the barriers between ourselves and the
state, ourselves and the corporation, ourselves and the machine are broken down.
In that tiny capsule we find the paradox of 21st century capitalism: a political
system which celebrates choice, autonomy and individualism above all other virtues
demands that choice, autonomy and individualism are perpetually suppressed.
While implanted chips will not lead to the mass scanning of the population,
another use of the same technology quite possibly will. At the end of last month,
a leaked letter from Andy Burnham, the Home Office minister, revealed that the
identity cards for which we will involuntarily volunteer will contain radio
frequency identification chips(8). This will allow the authorities
to read the cards with a scanner. I propose that as the technology improves,
the police will be able to scan a crowd and (assuming everyone is carrying his
voluntary-compulsory ID card) produce a list of whom it contains. I further
propose that it will take only a year or two for this to seem reasonable.
Already we have become used to the police filming demonstrations for the same
purpose. When they started doing it, about ten years ago, it caused outrage.
It gave us the impression that by protesting we became suspects. But now we
don’t even notice them: not even to the extent of waving and shouting
“hello Mum”. Like every other intrusion on our privacy, they have
I also propose that the mass scanning these identification chips will allow
will be assisted by another kind of surveillance technology. Last week, campaigners
in west Wales obtained a letter sent by the Welsh Development Agency to Ceredigion
County Council. It revealed that the agency, with the help of the European Union,
is setting up an industrial estate outside Aberystwyth. Its purpose is the “market
accelaration” of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)(9).
With the help of companies such as Bae Systems, Rolls Royce and our new friend
Qinetiq, the agency hopes to find the best way of encouraging the “routine
operation of UAV systems UK-wide”(10). Ceredigion council’s
website lists various functions of the UAVs, of which the first is “law
So the police won’t even have to be there. Someone sitting in a control
room could fly a tiny drone (some of them are just a few inches across) equipped
with a receiver over the heads of a crowd and, with the help of our new identity
cards, determine who’s there. It sounds quite mad, just as the idea of
biometric identity cards in the United Kingdom once did. All these new technologies
somehow contrive to seem both wildly implausible and entirely likely.
There will be no dramatic developments. We will not step out of our
homes one morning to discover that the state, or our boss, or our insurance
company, knows everything about us. But, if the muted response to the ID card
is anything to go by, we will gradually submit, in the name of our own protection,
to the demands of the machine. And it will not then require a tyrannical new
government to deprive us of our freedom. Step by voluntary step, we will have
given it up already.
1. Richard Waters, 12th February 2006. US group implants electronic
tags in workers. Financial Times.
2. Will Weissert, 14th July 2004. Chip Implanted in Mexico
Judicial Workers. Associated Press.
5. The Brittan Elementary School in Sutter. Cited by Susan
Kuchinskas, 18th February 2005. Networking. http://www.internetnews.com/infra/article.php/3484351
6. Paul A Gargano et al, 13th May 1997. Personal tracking
and recovery system. United States Patent no 5,629,678.
7. Daren Fonda, 24th October 2005. Biochips for Everyone!
8. Philip Johnston, 28th January 2006. ID cards ‘will
track where people go’. The Daily Telegraph.
9. Letter from Dr Sue Wolfe, Technology and Innovation Manager,
Welsh Development Agency, to Philip Ellis and Allan Lewis, Economic Development
Department, Ceredigion County Council, 6th January 2006.
11. Ceredigion County Council, 14th July 2004. ParcAberporth
is leading the way. Press release.