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Implanted ID chip finds way into ERs, bars

Scottish nightclub offers to implant patrons with controversial VeriChip so they can buy drinks more easily.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
2 min read
Since U.S. regulators approved them for medical use last year, implantable identification devices from VeriChip have turned up in some interesting places.

Harvard Medical School's chief information officer, Dr. John Halamka, had himself injected with a VeriChip identification microchip in December, the company announced on Friday.

Dr. John Halamka

The rice grain-sized chips, designed to be injected into the arm's fatty tissue, can be scanned like a bar code to call up personal information such as name, blood type and medical records.

The devices can also be linked to financial information such as credit card numbers and buying habits, which is why a nightclub in Glasgow, Scotland, recently began offering to implant its patrons with the chips. The club, called Bar Soba, said the chips let customers leave their wallets at home and count on their favorite drink being ready as soon as they walk through the door and get scanned.

VeriChip is a subsidiary of a Palm Beach, Fla., company called Applied Digital, which also makes implantable chips for tracking livestock and identifying lost pets. All are based on technology called radio frequency identification, or RFID.

The technology is commonly used in quick-pay toll systems and building access cards. It's also being used by Wal-Mart and other major retailers to monitor inventory and deter theft.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared VeriChip for medical use in October. The company is targeting patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other conditions requiring complex treatment.

Harvard's Halamka, a practicing emergency room physician, said the chips may also be useful for speeding care in emergency situations in which patients are often unconscious or nonresponsive. The technology could also help prevent errors in treating and administering medication to patients, he said.

"I'm not endorsing the product, yes or no," Halamka said. "I'm evaluating the product. So far there've been no problems."

Halamka said he has no financial relationship with VeriChip or its parent company.

Others who've had the devices implanted include Mexico's attorney general and some of his staff. A nightclub in Spain beat the one in Scotland; it's been offering chip implants since last April. At last count, in July, VeriChip had sold about 7,000 of the devices; about 1,000 of those have been inserted in humans, the company reported.

The practice has drawn criticism, however. Privacy advocates worry the technology would make it easier for the government to spy on its citizens and for marketers to identify customers and bombard them with sale pitches. Others object at a gut level, equating human RFID chips with the "mark of the beast," a demonic symbol described in the Bible.