An angel under your skin
By imrdkl in Technology
Thu May 02, 2002 at 06:34:54 AM EST
Tags: Focus On... (all tags)
A digital identity can be assigned to most any given entity,
including businesses, groups, and individuals.
As mentioned in my
a digital certificate may be assigned to an entity, then stored on a device,
such as a PC, or mobile phone. The device is then used to represent the entity
in an act of secure communication.
Recently, there's been some
big news about a company which has developed
a different sort of digital identity solution, which will bring the device, and
the entity that it represents, much closer together.
Applied Digital Solutions (ADSX),
a company in Palm Beach, Florida, is now poised to
begin marketing their new
VeriChip in the US.
This after receiving an
from the Food and Drug Administration
that the VeriChip is not regulable under their authority.
This acknowledgement was the last major hurdle which the company faced before they could
The VeriChip is an human-implantable device, with an unique and immutable
(like a certificate) identifier that can be used to identify its deployment
location (thats you). The VeriChip, it should be noted,
does not use an open standard to implement its communications protocol
securely. They use an proprietary
technique. Neither do these devices
allow for an user-generated keypair foundation for secure communications,
as a good identity infrastructure should.
ADSX claims that their VeriChip, when properly configured and installed,
can make the implantee part of an infrastructure which might one day save
his/her/its life - for example, if the case of
or theft. In this article, I'll try to flesh out what they mean
by that, and what these chips are, including a bit of historical background.
You'll also get an overview on how they work. When finished, I hope
the reader will have a better understanding about these chips,
even if such information may not help you to decide
whether you should accept an
as your own, personal
Before going further, I should say that there was
a lot of confusion and no small amount of hype evident
to me in the research I did for this article. If I looked hard
enough, I think I might find articles
which claim that these devices would teleport the implantee to
safety, and not even bother with any form of radio communication
at all. The fact of the matter is that, no matter what you hear,
minituarization has not come quite that far. Not yet. But sadly,
since Sept. 11, the motivation and drive from an
increasing part of the population for universal recognition has become
strong enough to change the focus from one of mild interest, to one
of strong demand. Have a look at what I've found, therefore, with
a skeptical eye, and an open mind.
- Digital Angels in the news
As mentioned, the legal hurdles have been removed now for these chips to go on sale
in the US. In other countries, where regulation and approval processes are less
stringent, they've been on sale for some time. A few days ago, ADSX signed an
certified non-exclusive distributor,
agreement with the Speko Corporation in Mexico City, for example.
While Speko has quotas to meet, both companies appear to be looking forward
to a profitable relationship.
And there do appear to be lots of potential customers, indeed.
companies and executives,
whole communities are saying,
Give us our ID chips right now!.
I wonder if these folks really know what they're getting, or even what they're asking for...
however, before we pull out our collective scalpals, torches, and pitchforks and begin
hunting down these modern day Frankensteins, lets take an honest look at how these
chips have developed, and more importantly, where they hope to go in the next few years.
- Some historical background on implanted devices
Getting chipped with a device like this is nothing new,
at least not for animals. For some years now, people have been
installing these types of devices
into their pets,
as a permanent form of identification that won't fall off like a
collar or tag. The claim
is that many pets have been saved from euthanasia and other
because of this innovation. Other implementations include chipping
livestock herds. Chips provide a form of identification that is much less stressful
and risky than standard eartags, or branding, albeit not human-readable,
and requiring relatively close-up scan of the appropriate area on the animals body
to receive the information.
Zoos all over the world are also using this type of chip in exhibited
In any case, the key thing to note about the current uses for these chips
is that their primary limitation has always been the distance from which they
can be read by their companion scanners. Distances vary from manufacturer
to manufacturer, and from chip to chip, but the implanted models, at least,
are still quite limited in range. Especially those chips that are passively
driven, like the VeriChip.
ADSX however, wants us to believe that they've solved this problem, or at least
that they're working on it. Their latest
press release from
April 26, predicts a subdermal GPS-capable chip within seven (7) months.
Perhaps. For now, lets consider the VeriChip as it exists today.
The VeriChip has patent id number
This patent was issued in 1997 to four individuals, including the retired policeman who
dreamt up the idea
in the first place. The description given for the device in the patent application is
Personal tracking and recovery system, and the application includes
details on the various modes of operation and activation which were envisioned.
The current release of the VeriChip operates in a passive mode, requiring
a scanner to be passed near the skin-area where the VeriChip has been
implanted, to activate it, and read its information via low-power radio
transmission. ADSX acquired this patent in 1999, and dubbed the device the
ADSX has also been actively acquiring other companies which hold patents and
produce devices of this type, including
Destron Fearing, a
maker of chips for livestock and pets. A major competitor, not
yet acquired by ADSX, is named
Trovan. Trovan also
makes animal chips, and holds numerous patents on this type of technology.
There was another interesting patent for this type of device issued
in 1997, which was applied-for just a few short months after the
VeriChip patent was applied-for. This patent has id number
and its description is Programmable subcutaneous visible implant. The
patent was issued to the
Interval Research Corporation,
an innovative think tank co-founded and largely funded by Paul Allen, who is also well known
as a Microsoft cofounder. It is unclear, from my limited research, whether
Interval Research is directly involved with ADSX, however, ADSX and its subsidiary
Digital Angel have already signed agreements with Microsoft, related to
mapping and location
software sold by Microsoft, called MapPoint. This patent application also delves
extensively into the prior art surrounding these devices, and is worth a look.
- Functional overview of implanted chips
The VeriChip, and other similar devices being marketed by Trovan and Destron Fearing
(see links above) are all about the size of a grain of rice - about
a centimeter long, and one or two millimeters thick, on average. Each of them is designed to
fit into a large-bore needle,
for implantation, so thickness is relatively uniform. The VeriChip itself is made from
out of "FDA-accepted" materials, and all are hermetically sealed, and inert
in the presence of biological tissue. As previously mentioned,
each of these chips carries, as its primary data, a single
unique identifier or code. Any given manufacturer of these devices will be using
an identifier long enough to assign to
as many customers as they might hope for. The Trovan
devices, for example, have a
which allows them to create some 550 billion of the devices with unique codes.
Each VeriChip also
implements an RFID
(radio frequency identification device), to transmit
the unique identifier to the proprietary scanning device.
They each include an 1mm antennae, and a radio activated
power source which is actived by the scanner.
The configuration procedure is dead simple. Purchase the chip from
an authorized reseller, and also deliver data to
an authorized data storage provider, such as Digital Angel.
Naturally, the data should correspond to the implantee. The data storage provider
is responsible for escrow storage of the data,
and delivers it to valid requestors who have provided the unique number which
is stored in, and transmitted from the chip.
The installation process comes next, after the data has been
loaded and configured at the escrow. One takes the device to an
appropriate medical professional, who then uses a large-bore needle to
complete the installation subcutaneously. The installation site is
monitored closely for some days or weeks afterwards,
to insure a peaceful coexistence in its new deployment facility.
Operation is thereafter quite painless and invisible. The
unique number is received by a scanner which is tuned and configured
to activate the chip, and receive on the frequency that the chip broadcasts upon.
The operator of
the receiver may then attempt to fetch the implantees escrow data with the unique number.
If the operator is valid and authorized with the escrow, the data will be
- Some concerns
Although it appears that the transmission distance problem is being dealt with,
the larger concern with these devices is security of the data. Not only the
data which is stored in the device, but also the escrow data which is made
available to the approved requestor.
It would be unwise to assume that the escrow data storage provider would be
as concerned about the security and reliability of the data provided to it, as
the owner of the data might be. Furthermore, the
proprietary transmission protocols used to activate and query the chip may not
be as secure as the manufacturer would like the purchaser to believe, which might
lead to "after market" scanners which could query a chip, without being held by an approved
requestor. Additionally, if the rumours are true, and ADSX does deliver an fully
implantable chip which tracks location of the owner via GPS, then I suppose there
might be no place left to hide, eh?
In conclusion, and in keeping with the Digital Identity theme of this article, I
submit that such a device should never be accepted by anyone. Not before
they can make it secure, and guarantee the privacy and control of the implantee.
To be fair however, I note that the patent application for the VeriChip does,
in fact, discuss means of actively controlling the IO channel built in to it.
They discuss voice activation, for example. Of course, this still does nothing
to protect the communication protocol, or the data. Only encryption
and possibly single-use keys will provide the level of security which should
be demanded by any liberty-loving deployment facility.