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Human Microchips Elicit Hope, Fear

Technology: The rice-size objects can hold crucial medical data. But critics fear 'Big Brother' will hold the scanner.

April 21, 2002|ADRIAN SAINZ | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Jeff Jacobs' neck is fused to his spine at a slightly downward angle, making it painful for him to look straight ahead without leaning back. He takes up to 10 medications a day for a number of other ailments, and several times he has nearly died.

One of his family's biggest worries is that he could become sick and unable to speak for himself in an emergency.

But thanks to a tiny computer chip that can be implanted in his body and scanned for personal and medical information, those fears may be eased.

Jacobs, his wife, Leslie, and their 14-year-old son, Derek, could become the nation's first family to be fitted with the device, called VeriChip. It is awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

The VeriChip, made by Applied Digital Solutions in Palm Beach County, Fla., is about the size of a grain of rice. It would be injected under a person's skin, probably in the arm, and could be read only by scanners.

Similar technology has been used in the past few years on millions of dogs and cats as a way to identify the pets if they are lost or stolen.

Applied Digital says the chip can provide instant access to a patient's medical records, which is especially valuable in emergencies or in situations in which the patient is unconscious and unable to provide a medical history or, say, allergies to any medications. It could, for example, be used to identify and diagnose a lost Alzheimer's patient.

Ultimately, the chips could be coupled with global positioning satellites to locate Alzheimer's patients who have wandered off, or to find kidnapping victims--an idea the company hopes to market in Latin America.

The chip could also be used as a security tool.

"It can be used as an inexpensive method to gain entry into a secure power plant, the cockpit of an airplane, or any place where a high level of authentication is required for entrance to a building," said Keith Bolton, Applied Digital vice president and chief technology officer. "It's a lot less expensive than retina scanning or thumbprint-recognition equipment."

The chip has stirred debate over its potential use as a "Big Brother" device to track people or invade the privacy of their homes or workplaces. Civil libertarians call it crypto-fascism or high-tech slavery. Religious advocates say it represents "the mark of the Beast," or the anti-Christ.

Jacobs and his family brush aside those arguments. Anyone can be tracked through the Internet and e-mail, credit cards and cellular phones, they say.

"We're kind of amazed there's such a hullabaloo about it," Jacobs said. "It's like someone presenting the world with a gift. It's inconceivable this could do anything but good."

Jacobs, a 48-year-old dentist, has suffered through cancer, a car crash, a degenerative spinal condition, chronic eye disease and abdominal operations. He has had to quit his dental practice, and doctors have told him they are not sure how long he will live.

Jacobs' son heard about the device from the news and pestered his mother to call Applied Digital.

"My husband almost died four or five times. We have been rushed to the hospital where he is unable to talk, and these nurses and doctors ask him for information," she said. "This way, they can take two seconds to scan it and you have the information, accurately."

The chip is expected to cost around $200 and the scanner between $1,000 and $3,000. Applied Digital plans to give away chip readers to hospitals and ambulance companies in hopes they will become standard equipment.

The timing of a decision from the FDA is unclear, but approval is probably several months away at the earliest.

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