Advantages & Disadvantages of RFID Technology in Humans

by Richard Gaughan

Radio frequency identification technologies offer the ability to connect a physical measurement in the real world with information that resides in the digital world. When an RFID-tagged crate of oranges makes it to the loading dock, a scan of the crate can pull up information on when the oranges were harvested and the temperature of the truck in which they were shipped. Then the supplier can be automatically paid. This kind of information maximizes efficiency for moving products and material. The same kind of efficiency can be applied to people tagged with RFID chips. But there are medical, ethical, and even religious overtones that question whether that's the best thing to do.

RFID in People

There are three parts to an RFID system: the tag, the reader, and the software that connects the RFID measurement to information in the digital world. There are different types of tags, but passive tags are the type currently being implanted in people. Passive tags send their own signal out only after they're triggered by a reader, which also provides the power for the tag to respond to the trigger signal. The passive tags don't provide information, just something like an ID number. After the ID number is read, the software will connect it to your information.

Uses of RFID in People

RFID tags have returned hundreds of thousands of lost pets to their homes.

Personal implanted RFID tags contain a unique identifier for each individual, which can be linked to information about an individual. In 2004, a club in Barcelona began offering RFID tags to their VIP customers, both to identify them as VIP members and to allow them to link their bar tab directly to their account. RFID security systems protect doorways, allowing entry only to authorized people — identified by their RFID tag. And — the biggest use to date in humans — RFID tags implanted in diabetics or Alzheimer's patients can link clinical personnel to the medical records of people unable to communicate. In all of these cases, the RFID chip enables an implanted person to link his physical presence to information stored in the digital world: his bank balance, the access list to a building, his medical history.

Medical Questions

The benefits of RFID in a medical setting are clear: With access to an individual's medical history, doctors can quickly reach intelligent decisions about medication and other treatments; and since the ID travels inside an individual, there's no risk of being mis-identified in the hospital. But, like all small implantable devices, if care isn't taken they can migrate within the body. And there's at least some question about the development of tumors in regions around implanted RFID tags, although the cases are too rare to be distinguished from the risk of cancers around any implanted item.

Ethical and Privacy Questions

A quick injection, and this pet has an RFID chip implanted.

Implantable passive RFID tags contain an ID number that can be read in a doctor's office, at a car door, or at the entrance to a club -- places where you want your information to be available. But that tag can also be read by anyone with an RFID reader within range of your tag. There are some arguments over how far that range is, but the consensus appears to be that the maximum range for these types of tags is a few feet. And even if someone gets access to your ID number, it wouldn't be easy to get access to the records linked to that number. Even so, the question of whether you want anyone to be able to track your movements without your knowledge is inevitable.

Myths About RFID

The fact that a tag can be directly linked to one individual, and that it could potentially be read without the individual's knowledge, has led to the propagation of some myths. One urban legend stated that the U.S. healthcare program -- commonly called ObamaCare -- required everyone to be implanted with an RFID tag. The myth arose because of the misinterpretation of text in an earlier version of the healthcare bill. Also receiving attention is the idea that RFID tags are the prophesied mark of the beast -- an apocalyptic symbol in the Bible. There are even hermeneutical arguments over whether or not the characteristics of RFID tags fit the biblical description of the mark of the beast.

About the Author

First published in 1998, Richard Gaughan has contributed to publications such as "Photonics Spectra," "The Scientist" and other magazines. He is the author of "Accidental Genius: The World's Greatest By-Chance Discoveries." Gaughan holds a Bachelor of Science in physics from the University of Chicago.

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