First Humans to Receive ID Chips
Technology: Device implanted under skin will provide identification and medical information.By DAVID STREITFELD
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 9 2002
Eight people will be injected with silicon chips Friday, making them scannable just like a jar of peanut butter in the supermarket checkout line.
The miniature devices, about the size of a grain of rice, were developed by a Florida company. They will be targeted to families of Alzheimer's patients--one of the fastest growing groups in American society--as well as others who have complicated medical histories.
"It's safety precaution," explained Nate Isaacson. The retired building contractor will enter his Fort Lauderdale doctor's office Friday as an 83-year-old with Alzheimer's.
He'll leave it a cyborg, a man who is also a little bit of a computer.
The chip will be put in Isaacson's upper back, effectively invisible unless a hand-held scanner is waved over it. The scanner uses a radio frequency to energize the dormant chip, which then transmits a signal containing an identification number. Information about Isaacson is cross-referenced under that number in a central computer registry.
Emergency room personnel, for instance, could find out who Isaacson is and where he lives. They'd know that he is prone to forgetfulness, that has a pacemaker and is allergic to penicillin.
"You never know what's going to happen when you go out the door," said Isaacson's wife, Micki. "Should something happen, he's never going to remember those things."
Applied Digital Solutions Inc., the maker of what it calls the VeriChip, says that it will soon have a prototype of a much more complex device, one that is able to receive GPS satellite signals and transmit a person's location.
It's a prospect deeply unsettling to privacy advocates, no matter how voluntary the process may initially appear.
"Who gets to decide who gets chipped?" asked Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Parents will decide that their kids should be implanted, or maybe their own aging parents. It's an easier way to manage someone, like putting a leash on a pet."
Applied Digital, which says it has a waiting list of 4,000 to 5,000 people who want a VeriChip, plans to operate a "chipmobile" that visits Florida senior citizen's centers. An estimated 4 million people nationally have Alzheimer's, with more than 10% of them in Florida.
Not Just for Those With Alzheimer's
Jeffrey and Leslie Jacobs and their teenage son Derek, whose "chipping" will be a national media event, don't have problems with dementia. The Boca Raton, Fla., family has a mixture of ailments and interests: Jeffrey has been treated for Hodgkin's disease and suffers from other conditions for which he takes 16 medications, while Derek is allergic to certain antibiotics. Mostly, though, he's a computer buff who considers the procedure nifty. As for Leslie, she's merely hoping to feel more secure in an insecure world.
A third group readying themselves for the simple outpatient procedure Friday are executives of Applied Digital, a publicly traded company based in Palm Beach. Even their publicist is doing it.
Getting chipped is easy. Making it more useful than a piece of body art will be harder.
"There are a lot of practical issues here, as well as ethical and privacy issues," said Mark Pafford, associate executive director of the Alzheimer's Assn.'s Southeast Florida chapter. "If it were me, I would use something tried and proven, like a ID bracelet or a necklace that has an 800 number. This VeriChip seems like it would inhibit someone being returned home in a timely fashion. Who knows how to look under someone's skin?"
Applied Digital says nearly all the major hospitals in the West Palm Beach area will be equipped with the scanners. Yet St. Mary's Medical Center, a major trauma center approached at random by a reporter, said no one had contacted that hospital.
Isaacson's family says he has a bracelet. He also has a wallet with an ID.
"The VeriChip is more of a 'God forbid,'" said Sherry Gottlieb, Isaacson's daughter. "You feel you have to have it, but hope you never need it."
Applied Digital is charging $200 for a chip, plus a $10 monthly fee to store the information. As the first patients, Isaacson and the Jacobses are getting their VeriChips for free, but that's the only financial consideration they are receiving.
Isaacson's doctor, while agreeing to perform the insertion, has some qualms about it. He consented to be interviewed but asked that his name not be revealed until Friday. While protests against the VeriChip have been minimal, neither the doctor nor Applied Digital are eager to see demonstrations. A few religious groups say the chips are "the mark of the Beast" referred to in the Bible.
"I think this is going to be the cutting edge of the future, because quick information saves lives," Isaacson's doctor said. "I get calls 24 hours a day informing me that a patient has had a stroke or a heart attack and is in the hospital. I have to go to my office, get the chart, and then go to the hospital. All that takes time, while the patient is being treated with limited information."
And yet this family practitioner doesn't see himself chipping any youthful patients. While he believes the procedure is safe and the chip can always be removed, he's worried about long-term liability. "You do something to a young person, you may be responsible for years afterwards. He may be carrying this chip for 70 or 80 years."
Long before then--by the end of the year, in fact--the next generation of devices will be tested.
An embedded chip with GPS capabilities would be slightly larger than a quarter and require actual surgery to implant. Unlike the VeriChip, it also would require Food and Drug Administration approval. That will slow down its U.S. introduction.
"We believe we have solved the battery issue, which leaves the question of an antenna that can transmit through skin tissue," said Keith Bolton, Applied Digital's chief scientist. The devices will be powered by lithium ion batteries, which can be charged remotely from outside the body.
Interest in Device in Brazil and Mexico
Applied Digital says it has already received considerable interest in the VeriChip from both commercial and government sources in Brazil and Mexico, and expects the embedded system to be big wherever there is a big threat of kidnapping.
The prospect of such sales is no doubt one reason Applied Digital stock, which traded as low as 11 cents in the last year, recently quadrupled to about $2.
Corporate insiders were sellers of the stock before the recent run-up, which might indicate a lack of faith in the company's viability.
The stock fell 6 cents to $2.01 on Wednesday on Nasdaq.
Applied Digital is heavily indebted but says it will have actual earnings this quarter before interest, taxes and depreciation are accounted for.
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