RF-IDing the dead

After Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi coroner Gary Hargrove used RFID chips to avoid mix-ups. He now endorses their use whole-heartedly.

Alorie Gilbert
Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
6 min read
Electronic identification chips have found their way into everything from Gillette shavers to prison inmates. But in September, with the Gulf Coast reeling from Hurricane Katrina, some people found an entirely new use for the technology: identifying the dead.

Gary Hargrove, coroner of Mississippi's Harrison County, began injecting radio frequency identification (RFID) chips into cadavers to cope with the mounting body count. He said the chips, supplied by a Florida company called VeriChip, helped the county identify and return storm victims to their families without mix-ups. The county also injected the chips into bodies dislodged from graves during flooding.

VeriChip specializes in human RFID systems and has marketed the technology mainly to hospitals as a way to track live patients. It's also pitching the systems to businesses as a more secure authentication technology than ID badges and cards. But human implantation is extremely controversial. Some critics worry about potential civil liberties violations. Others oppose it on religious grounds.

Do such concerns pertain when the subjects are dead? Hargrove spoke with CNET News.com recently to weigh in on that question and others.

Q: What was the benefit of doing this? How was it any better than, say, a toe tag or a barcode?
Hargrove: You can use paper toe tags, which don't last very long. Once they get wet, they usually fall apart or the ink runs on them and you can't read the numbers. (VeriChip) was a better way to track it. Once you put a number to the body bag, you place this chip and you wouldn't have to open the bag. You could take a scanner and scan from outside of the bag, up around the left shoulder, and it would pick up this 16-digit number on the chip that was inserted in the body.

How did it work exactly? These chips were injected into the dead?
Hargrove: The chips were injected just under the skin. They can be in any part of the arm. We chose to do the left shoulder. That way it (would) be a consistent location for all victims that we found.

Had this been done elsewhere before or were you doing something brand new?
Hargrove: My understanding was that this was a brand new use of the VeriChip.

So how many bodies have you injected in all?
Hargrove: About 300.

Did you have help or were you doing this by yourself?
Hargrove: Most of them were done by the pathologists. This was done through DMORT, which is the U.S. Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team that came in to assist our community because of the large number of deaths. So, DMORT was in charge of handling the individuals once we made the recovery. Once they came in and began the process, the pathologists would insert the chip at that point.

What kind of information do the chips track?
Hargrove: Identifying marks, the height, weight, hair, eyes, clothing. Let's say I have five people who are unidentified. And all five of them had the chip. All five of them have a description and some family member comes along and says, "Hey, I believe you have my brother, who we found out was in the area at the time of the storm, and this is his description." If that description matches one of the five victims we have buried, well, then we can say, "Okay, in grave No. 2 is (your brother)."

And you can search the computer for this identifying information?
Hargrove: Exactly. It takes away the human error that can occur because we all make mistakes. But this is...just one more step to alleviate the possibility of an error occurring where you give the wrong person to the wrong family.

Why inject the chip? Can't you attach it to the outside of the bag?
Hargrove: No. You'd want it placed on the body so that it won't be lost in the midst of maybe moving the body or in the examination of the body. You don't want to lose that, so you inject, and

it stays in the body permanently from that point on. By putting it in the body, in the left shoulder, no matter whether we go there today or five years from now, you'll be able to take a scan and that 16-digit number will come up.

Why would you want to do that five years from now?
Hargrove: Well, I'm just saying, that's the advantage of the product if you had a large number of unidentified bodies at the end of the operation, which we don't have. We're in the single digits of unidentified (bodies). I think I have one from my county.

Are the benefits you're talking about worth paying for?
Hargrove: It is, in my opinion. We are very fortunate that VeriChip was willing to donate this equipment to our region. But I highly suggest that anyone who has a large number of casualties use this technique. No. 1, it will help with the tracking of that individual. You can assign information; you can actually build a database to hold any kind of information you want about that individual.

But I guess it would depend on the cost, if this were to become a commercial technology.
Hargrove: Right. I couldn't speak on the issue of cost. That was never an issue when they came into my community.

Was it hard to learn to use this technique?
Hargrove: It was very simple. Basically, it's like giving a shot. For anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, it would be very easy to use this.

What about decomposed bodies or body parts?
Hargrove: Well, decomposed bodies--you still have a body there even though it's decomposed. You still, you know, put the chip in the same as you would on a body that was not decomposed. As far as remains of individuals where there was no flesh, those chips were placed in a bag in an area at the top of what we would consider the head of the bag.

Did you encounter any objections to the use of this technology? I mean there are some people who might feel it's disrespectful to the dead.
Hargrove: I have not heard any negative input from them. I was told that there was an article by a group--I guess by some watchdogs--that were concerned about invasion of privacy. But this was not an invasion of privacy. It's a tool for us to be able to track the individual, so the individual doesn't get lost.

But it does seem to raise questions of inhumanity.
Hargrove: People who have lost their lives here, as well as those who were already buried and were washed out of their final resting place, those individuals were treated with the utmost respect. And one of the ways that we could respect them the most was to be able to get them back to their families and back to their final resting place with no interference from human error.

What's the read range of the chip?
Hargrove: It's not like a three- or four-foot range. I mean, you just run it over the back of the bag.

So, it's a few inches? It's not like once the person is buried you could go reading chips in graves?
Hargrove: No, not from above the ground.

I was curious how your relationship with VeriChip came about. Did they approach you?
Hargrove: VeriChip came to our community, contacted me and that's how the initial contact came. What they offered was to provide the equipment to us, to allow us to use the chip as an identifying mark to help track all of our victims that we were recovering. I told them I was very interested in using their product, and they offered to provide the equipment to us at no cost to our county, our community.

At what point did they come in?
Hargrove: They were in here within the first week (after Katrina hit), but I don't know the exact date.

From VeriChip's point of view, was this sort of a test case for this application of their technology?
Hargrove: Yeah, I haven't talked with them to see exactly why they came into the area. I do know that in talking to them, they were very anxious to offer the equipment for us to be able to do our job, if we felt that it was beneficial.

Have you been getting calls from other people, other coroners, who are interested in this technology?
Hargrove: Well, I know several of the people that were associated with DMORT that watched the technology being used and how we were using it. There was a discussion amongst a group of people about that.

Are you keeping the equipment, then?
Hargrove: The only thing that was really left over was the scanners that they provided. So, yes, those will be kept so that we'll be able to use them in the future. And we have a few of the chips left that you know we will continue to keep in event that we recover other victims.