All Commentary
Friday, September 21, 2007

A Chip Off Old Big Brother's Block


Late last month the California Senate and Assembly sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill to prohibit employers from requiring workers to have RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips implanted under their skin. North Dakota and Wisconsin already have passed similar laws. Two other states are considering bans. VeriChip (motto, appropriately: RFID for People) already has FDA permission to sell a device suitable for human implantation. Some people find this form of ID attractive because it can't be lost or, presumably, counterfeited easily. (We'll see about that.) But others, especially organizations dedicated to protecting privacy, object to treating people like pets.

What should an advocate of liberty think of all this?

There are two issues here: the proposed legislative ban and the potential employer requirement. Strong opposition is called for on both counts.

To take the overtly political issue first, let us note the irony: a government body is posing as the protector of the individual's privacy. Of course, it would not really be protecting anything at all. The bill passed in California proposes to interfere with a consensual relationship, however dubious, between employer and employee. The terms of employment are only proposals and need not be accepted. If someone would rather have a chip implanted than find a new job, that's his own business. It's true that people don't always have desirable employment alternatives immediately available to them. The solution to that problem is not more government interference but less. The whole complex of regulations, taxes, subsidies, patents, and other privileges that stifle competition and self-employment should be swept away so that workers' choices and bargaining power can be maximized. We should not let the undeniable improvement in living standards for working people over the last century blind us to the fact that mercantilist/corporatist interventions inhibit competition and protect incumbent companies — to the detriment of workers. This doesn't mean the obstacles can't be overcome — they can be and often are — but that doesn't alter the fact that government is a barrier to entry in the market and thus a guardian of established firms against competition. The greatest burden is on the poorest and least prepared to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth.

Repulsive Requirement

But no advocate of freedom can leave the matter there. Government interference with consenting adults is not the only objectionable thing in the world. The idea that an employer would require workers to have an ID chip implanted in their bodies — a high-tech version of a tattooed serial number — is repulsive. Most people blithely move from the thought X is repulsive to a second thought, The state should outlaw X. Libertarians know better, but that doesn't mean they must accept a repulsive requirement such as this or assume a relativist posture. They can vigorously oppose it through methods other than government decrees, such as consumer boycotts and myriad forms of pressure and publicity. Such activity is as much within the realm of individual liberty as buying and selling.

Moreover, workers subjected to this demand also have effective measures available that don't include running to the government. Employers need workers as much as workers need employers, and if it's really a two-way street, then workers have a right to use any peaceful means to oppose a requirement that they have ID chips implanted in their bodies. This could include everything from publicizing the odious demand to customers and the public at large, to work to rule actions, strike threats, and actual strikes. There is nothing in the free-market philosophy that requires a take it or leave it spectrum of alternatives, keeping in mind that in the absence of a contract an employer has the right to dismiss an employee. (Roderick Long and Charles Johnson discuss nonstate yet nonetheless political forms of opposition here.)

It shouldn't be hard to get people mobilized against human chip implants. While the chip is embedded with a hypodermic needle, it is taken out with a scalpel. Katherine Albrecht, coauthor of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, told WorldNetDaily: Obviously, nobody wants their employer coming at them with a giant hypodermic needle. But when people realize it takes a scalpel and surgery to remove the device if it gets hacked, they'll really think twice. An implant is disgusting enough going in, but getting it out again is a bloody mess.

That could make this remark by Ray O'Hara, senior vice president at Vance International Inc., a security consulting company, a gross understatement: I would agree with the HR [human resources] and labor relations folks that this may be a hurdle that will take quite some time to get over. I think it's going to be a big sell to get it [widely adopted] in the workplace.

Keith Bolton, chief technology officer and a vice president at VeriChip's parent company, Applied Digital, seems uneasy about employers' requiring workers to have implants. The line in the sand that we draw is that the use of the VeriChip would always be voluntarily [sic]. We would never provide it to a company that intended to coerce people to use it. (As noted, that would not be literal coercion.)

WorldNetDaily also reports that Liz McIntyre, Katherine Albrecht's coauthor, says the VeriChip can be hacked. Rogue readers have already been shown to be cheap and feasible. (Want t to clone a chip yourself? See this. For more scary stuff, see this Wired article.)


Other Uses

The chip, about the size of grain of rice, would contain personal identification that could be deciphered by a reader at an employee's workplace. But, as the AP reported in 2002, Other possible uses of the technology, from an added device that would allow satellite tracking of an individual's every movement to the storage of sensitive data like medical records, are already attracting interest across the globe for tasks like foiling kidnappings or assisting paramedics…. Applied Digital says technology to let the chip to be used for tracking is already well under development. But kidnap victims and people with severe allergies are not the only people who could be tracked. And as noted, no one could be sure that only authorized personnel were reading the information. The problem is that you always have to think about what the device will be used for tomorrow, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Lee Tien said. It's what we call function creep. At first a device is used for applications we all agree are good but then it slowly is used for more than it was intended.

Another reason to be concerned is that widespread use of the chip would soften people up for its eventual use by the government. The AP story pointed out that the technology is another sign that Sept. 11 has catapulted the science of security into a realm with uncharted possibilities — and also new fears for privacy.

The time to arouse people's ire about RFID-chip implants is now — not when it's the subject of a congressional bill or executive order. At that point it probably will be too late.

Repulsive Requirement

But no advocate of freedom can leave the matter there. Government interference with consenting adults is not the only objectionable thing in the world. The idea that an employer would require workers to have an ID chip implanted in their bodies — a high-tech version of a tattooed serial number — is repulsive. Most people blithely move from the thought X is repulsive to a second thought, The state should outlaw X. Libertarians know better, but that doesn't mean they must accept a repulsive requirement such as this or assume a relativist posture. They can vigorously oppose it through methods other than government decrees, such as consumer boycotts and myriad forms of pressure and publicity. Such activity is as much within the realm of individual liberty as buying and selling.

Moreover, workers subjected to this demand also have effective measures available that don't include running to the government. Employers need workers as much as workers need employers, and if it's really a two-way street, then workers have a right to use any peaceful means to oppose a requirement that they have ID chips implanted in their bodies. This could include everything from publicizing the odious demand to customers and the public at large, to work to rule actions, strike threats, and actual strikes. There is nothing in the free-market philosophy that requires a take it or leave it spectrum of alternatives, keeping in mind that in the absence of a contract an employer has the right to dismiss an employee. (Roderick Long and Charles Johnson discuss nonstate yet nonetheless political forms of opposition here.)

It shouldn't be hard to get people mobilized against human chip implants. While the chip is embedded with a hypodermic needle, it is taken out with a scalpel. Katherine Albrecht, coauthor of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, told WorldNetDaily: Obviously, nobody wants their employer coming at them with a giant hypodermic needle. But when people realize it takes a scalpel and surgery to remove the device if it gets hacked, they'll really think twice. An implant is disgusting enough going in, but getting it out again is a bloody mess.

That could make this remark by Ray O'Hara, senior vice president at Vance International Inc., a security consulting company, a gross understatement: I would agree with the HR [human resources] and labor relations folks that this may be a hurdle that will take quite some time to get over. I think it's going to be a big sell to get it [widely adopted] in the workplace.

Keith Bolton, chief technology officer and a vice president at VeriChip's parent company, Applied Digital, seems uneasy about employers' requiring workers to have implants. The line in the sand that we draw is that the use of the VeriChip would always be voluntarily [sic]. We would never provide it to a company that intended to coerce people to use it. (As noted, that would not be literal coercion.)

WorldNetDaily also reports that Liz McIntyre, Katherine Albrecht's coauthor, says the VeriChip can be hacked. Rogue readers have already been shown to be cheap and feasible. (Want t to clone a chip yourself? See this. For more scary stuff, see this Wired article.)


Other Uses

The chip, about the size of grain of rice, would contain personal identification that could be deciphered by a reader at an employee's workplace. But, as the AP reported in 2002, Other possible uses of the technology, from an added device that would allow satellite tracking of an individual's every movement to the storage of sensitive data like medical records, are already attracting interest across the globe for tasks like foiling kidnappings or assisting paramedics…. Applied Digital says technology to let the chip to be used for tracking is already well under development. But kidnap victims and people with severe allergies are not the only people who could be tracked. And as noted, no one could be sure that only authorized personnel were reading the information. The problem is that you always have to think about what the device will be used for tomorrow, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Lee Tien said. It's what we call function creep. At first a device is used for applications we all agree are good but then it slowly is used for more than it was intended.

Another reason to be concerned is that widespread use of the chip would soften people up for its eventual use by the government. The AP story pointed out that the technology is another sign that Sept. 11 has catapulted the science of security into a realm with uncharted possibilities — and also new fears for privacy.

The time to arouse people's ire about RFID-chip implants is now — not when it's the subject of a congressional bill or executive order. At that point it probably will be too late.


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.