FDA approves world's first implantable ID chip for humans

January 1, 2005

National report - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent approval for medical applications of VeriChip, the world's first implantable identification device for humans, could signal the beginning of a new state-of-the-art world of computerized data tracking previously seen only in science fiction movies.

National report - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent approval for medical applications of VeriChip, the world's first implantable identification device for humans, could signal the beginning of a new state-of-the-art world of computerized data tracking previously seen only in science fiction movies.

On the other hand, it is likely to spark more strong concerns that individual privacy could potentially be threatened in a manner reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell's foreboding novel 1984.

Pen point About the size of the point of a ballpoint pen and containing a verification number, VeriChip, developed by Applied Digital of Delray Beach, Fla., is implanted under the skin between the shoulder and elbow. Radiofrequency energy from an external scanner passes through the skin to the chip, which then emits a radiofrequency signal containing the 16-digit verification number.

According to Applied Digital, use of the device in healthcare scenarios will speed up data gathering and reduce medical errors. Applied Digital also foresees uses for VeriChip that include the "tracking, monitoring and protection of all assets, including human beings" in corporate, retail and manufacturing environments.

Implantation of the device, according to Applied Digital, is an outpatient procedure that "lasts just a few minutes and involves only local anesthetic followed by quick, painless insertion."

Skepticism and optimism Not surprisingly, the FDA's approval of the device for medical applications elicited some skepticism as well as some optimism among some in the dermatological community.

"I think VeriChip has some merit for use as an identification device," says Glynis Ablon, M.D., director of the Ablon Skin Institute, Manhattan Beach, Calif. "The immediate concern is about patient privacy, malfunction and cost."

Dermatologic problems regarding implantation of the device should be minimal, says Mitchel P. Goldman, M.D., medical director of La Jolla (Calif.) Spa MD and Dermatology/Cosmetic Laser Associates of La Jolla. "Yes, there is a small risk of infection. Yes, with trauma to the implant there may be a problem with absorption of toxic metals in the implant," he says. "Yes, some people may even be allergic to the implant substance unless it is made 100 percent of silicone.

"As to the ethical questions regarding chip placement, I am not an expert on ethics and cannot comment on them, but it would make every person findable and trackable by the government or others (if every person were to be implanted with such a device)."

Curious but cautious A self-confessed "gadget devotee, technical bozo and Web nerd," Christopher B. Zachary, M.D., clinical professor and co-director of the Dermatologic and Laser Center at the University of California, San Francisco, has this take on the VeriChip device:

"This microchip concept is interesting. However, it is in the application of this technology that a careful discussion should take place," he says. "Now that the FDA has approved the device, you can count on it being a popular procedure, maybe even in the shopping malls. From a practical point of view, this train has already left the station.

"To some, the VeriChip might, at first sight, look ominously like Big Brother bearing down yet again - and that is exactly what it is. It is sure to provoke an outcry of 'shame' from many a concerned American, and by some of the physicians who are asked to implant the chip. But what's new? If we haven't yet realized that things have changed since 9/11, then we are blind to reality. Whether by retinal scans, facial recognition software, or digital fingerprinting, we are all marked men these days, imprisoned in a free society. And many will be happy to have the new safety and security features that these identification devices bring, even with the associated costs."

Biggest concern Dr. Zachary says his main concern about the VeriChip is the potentially serious lack of security of the personal medical database.