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Microchips for Illegals? By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, July 14, 2006

The hot-button issue of illegal immigration continued to dominate the political landscape this week, as hearings were held around the country to discuss separate House and Senate immigration bills currently before Congress. The House bill calls for the construction of a 700-mile-long fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, increased funding for enforcement, and stricter deportation rules. The Senate version, while similar in many respects to the House bill, calls for the establishment of a permanent guest worker program and legal residency for a period of up to six years.

With so much legislative energy devoted to the issue of illegal immigration, many Americans are looking to Washington for a well-reasoned, comprehensive solution. As a result, Washington has increased its contacts with corporate America in an effort to identify technologies that can be quickly implemented and effectively administered. Scott Silverman, chairman of Florida-based VeriChip Corporation, thinks he may have the answer the government has been looking for.


In an interview with Fox News Channel last month, Silverman said that his company’s Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip could be used to register foreign workers and their identities at the U.S. border. “Obviously, it [RFID] can be applicable for the immigration issues we face today.” During the interview, Silverman also stated that he had discussed RFID technology with leaders in Washington for use in a guest worker program.


Simply defined, RFID technology employs devices called “tags” comprised of an integrated circuit and antenna which transmits information by radio wave to a mobile or stationary receiver called a “reader.” The information collected is then processed and stored in a database according to the unique needs of the host. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the country’s first implantable RFID chip from VeriChip Corp., designed to limit misdiagnosis in medial treatments. Presently, VeriChip is the only U.S. company with federal approval to implant RFID chips in humans.


According to statistics released by UK-company IDTEch in June, total global RFID tag volume is expected to grow to 1.3 billion in 2006 and 585 billion by 2016. RFID global market value, currently at $2.7 billion, is expected to reach $26.2 billion in the next ten years.


While the idea of “chipping” human beings remains objectionable to most Americans, the technology is gaining momentum among members of Congress. In a June letter to fellow Senators, Senator John Cornyn, R-TX, and Senator Byron Dorgan, D-ND, proposed the creation of a Senate RFID Caucus to examine the security benefits and policy implications of RFID technology.


Douglas Farry, managing director of international law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge and a lead correspondent for the RFID Law Blog, noted last month, “There are Internet caucuses in both the House and Senate and they’ve both had forums in which RFID has been showcased.”


In October, the U.S. State Department finalized plans to move forward with the implementation of RFID embedded e-passports for its widely-publicized U.S.-Visit program, a government program that uses a combination of biometric and biographical information from visitors to verify identities. Washington has mandated adoption of biometrically-enabled RFID e-passports by October 2006. Countries such as Japan, Germany, and Great Britain have already introduced their own e-passport legislation to comply with the impending changes. The new U.S. e-passports will contain the name, nationality, date of birth, place of birth, and a digitized photograph of the passport holder.


In his recent national T.V. address on immigration, President Bush called for a “technologically advanced border security initiative as part of a broader plan to curtail illegal immigration.” Could RFID tags provide the answer the president is looking for?


According to a June Department of Homeland Security (DHS) draft report, the answer is a resounding “no.” In the report entitled “The Use of RFID for Human Identification” prepared by the DHS’s Emerging Applications and Technology subcommittee, DHS officials roundly criticized the use of RFID technology for security authentication, noting, “Most difficult and troubling is the situation in which RFID is ostensibly used for tracking objects but can be in fact used for monitoring human behavior.” The report went on to say, “These types of uses are still being explored and remain difficult to predict. For these reasons we recommend that RFID be disfavored for identifying and tracking human beings.”


The authors did recognize several benefits of RFID, namely, for inventory and emergency management purposes, while also recommending the adoption of best practices such as encryption and the addition of a “kill switch” on all RFID tags. The general message of the report, however, was one of caution and concern regarding the possibility of human tracking. “Human identification using RFID has serious potential to deprive people of notice that potentially highly specific, detailed information about them is being collected,” the report said.


The idea of “tagging and tracking” human beings has come under fire from privacy rights advocates, as well. Mary Brown, a security specialist who teaches at Capella University in Minneapolis, has voiced concern about the use of RFID technology as it relates to humans. “When it comes to human tracking, I think we are crossing the edge,” she said.


A frightening look at what the future could hold for immigrants and Americans alike occurred at last month’s Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) conference in Baltimore, where representatives from VeriChip gave live demonstrations of its HALO system, a patented skin-sensing technology that prevents RFID tag removal.


Recognizing the complex legal, ethical and privacy questions related to RFID technology, the Wisconsin state legislature passed a bill recently banning chip implants by corporations that do not have the approval of the implatntee.


Without question, the continued scourge of illegal immigration compromises the country’s national identity, security and sovereignty. As a technology, RFID is steadily improving and evolving, with greater processing and storage capabilities. When properly administered and implemented, automatic identification technologies such as RFID serve a valuable purpose in supply-chain management and possibly medical diagnosis. But by tagging all immigrants we open a “Pandora’s Box” of Orwellian proportions.

Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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