y the time my four-year-old son is swathed
in the soft flesh of old age, he will likely find it
unremarkable that he and almost everyone he knows
will be permanently implanted with a microchip.
Automatically tracking his location in real time, it
will connect him with databases monitoring and
recording his smallest behavioural traits.
Most people anticipate such a prospect with a sense
of horrified disbelief, dismissing it as a
science-fiction fantasy. The technology, however,
already exists. For years humane societies have
implanted all the pets that leave their premises
with a small identifying microchip. As well,
millions of consumer goods are now traced with tiny
radio frequency identification chips that allow
satellites to reveal their exact location.
A select group of people are already "chipped" with
devices that automatically open doors, turn on
lights, and perform other low-level miracles.
Prominent among such individuals is researcher Kevin
Warwick of Reading University in England; Warwick is
a leading proponent of the almost limitless
potential uses for such chips.
Other users include the patrons of the Baja Beach
Club in Barcelona, many of whom have paid about $150
(U.S.) for the privilege of being implanted with an
identifying chip that allows them to bypass lengthy
club queues and purchase drinks by being scanned.
These individuals are the advance guard of an effort
to expand the technology as widely as possible.
From this point forward, microchips will become
progressively smaller, less invasive, and easier to
deploy. Thus, any realistic barrier to the wholesale
"chipping" of Western citizens is not technological
but cultural. It relies upon the visceral reaction
against the prospect of being personally marked as
one component in a massive human inventory.
Today we might strongly hold such beliefs, but
sensibilities can, and probably will, change. How
this remarkable attitudinal transformation is likely
to occur is clear to anyone who has paid attention
to privacy issues over the past quarter-century.
There will be no 3 a.m. knock on the door by storm
troopers come to force implants into our bodies. The
process will be more subtle and cumulative, couched
in the unassailable language of progress and social
betterment, and mimicking many of the processes that
have contributed to the expansion of closed-circuit
television cameras and the corporate market in
A series of tried and tested strategies will be
marshalled to familiarize citizens with the
technology. These will be coupled with efforts to
pressure tainted social groups and entice the
remainder of the population into being chipped.
This, then, is how the next generation will come to
It starts in distant countries. Having tested the
technology on guinea pigs, both human and animal,
the first widespread use of human implanting will
occur in nations at the periphery of the Western
world. Such developments are important in their own
right, but their international significance pertains
to how they familiarize a global audience with the
technology and habituate them to the idea that
chipping represents a potential future.
An increasing array of hypothetical chipping
scenarios will also be depicted in entertainment
media, furthering the familiarization process.
In the West, chips will first be implanted in
members of stigmatized groups. Pedophiles are the
leading candidate for this distinction, although it
could start with terrorists, drug dealers, or
whatever happens to be that year's most vilified
criminals. Short-lived promises will be made that
the technology will only be used on the "worst of
the worst." In fact, the wholesale chipping of
incarcerated individuals will quickly ensue,
encompassing people on probation and on parole.
Even accused individuals will be tagged, a measure
justified on the grounds that it would stop them
from fleeing justice. Many prisoners will welcome
this development, since only chipped inmates will be
eligible for parole, weekend release, or community
sentences. From the prison system will emerge an
evocative vocabulary distinguishing chippers from
Although the chips will be justified as a way to
reduce fraud and other crimes, criminals will almost
immediately develop techniques to simulate other
people's chip codes and manipulate their data.
The comparatively small size of the incarcerated
population, however, means that prisons would be
simply a brief stopover on a longer voyage.
Commercial success is contingent on making serious
inroads into tagging the larger population of
law-abiding citizens. Other stigmatized groups will
therefore be targeted. This will undoubtedly entail
monitoring welfare recipients, a move justified to
reduce fraud, enhance efficiency, and ensure that
the poor do not receive "undeserved" benefits.
Once e-commerce is sufficiently advanced, welfare
recipients will receive their benefits as electronic
vouchers stored on their microchips, a policy that
will be tinged with a sense of righteousness, as it
will help ensure that clients can only purchase
government-approved goods from select merchants,
reducing the always disconcerting prospect that poor
people might use their limited funds to purchase
alcohol or tobacco.
Civil libertarians will try to foster a debate on
these developments. Their attempts to prohibit
chipping will be handicapped by the inherent
difficulty in animating public sympathy for
criminals and welfare recipients — groups that many
citizens are only too happy to see subjected to
tighter regulation. Indeed, the lesser public
concern for such groups is an inherent part of the
unarticulated rationale for why coerced chipping
will be disproportionately directed at the
The official privacy arm of the government will now
take up the issue. Mandated to determine the
legality of such initiatives, privacy commissioners
and Senate Committees will produce a forest of
reports presented at an archipelago of international
conferences. Hampered by lengthy research and
publication timelines, their findings will be
delivered long after the widespread adoption of
chipping is effectively a fait accompli. The
research conclusions on the effectiveness of such
technologies will be mixed and open to
Officials will vociferously reassure the chipping
industry that they do not oppose chipping itself,
which has fast become a growing commercial sector.
Instead, they are simply seeking to ensure that the
technology is used fairly and that data on the chips
is not misused. New policies will be drafted.
What might Hitler, Mao or Milosevic have
accomplished if their citizens were chipped,
coded, and remotely monitored?
Employers will start to expect implants as
a condition of getting a job. The U.S. military will
lead the way, requiring chips for all soldiers as a
means to enhance battlefield command and control —
and to identify human remains. From cooks to
commandos, every one of the more than one million
U.S. military personnel will see microchips replace
their dog tags.
Following quickly behind will be the massive
security sector. Security guards, police officers,
and correctional workers will all be expected to
have a chip. Individuals with sensitive jobs will
find themselves in the same position.
The first signs of this stage are already apparent.
In 2004, the Mexican attorney general's office
started implanting employees to restrict access to
secure areas. The category of "sensitive occupation"
will be expansive to the point that anyone with a
job that requires keys, a password, security
clearance, or identification badge will have those
replaced by a chip.
Judges hearing cases on the constitutionality of
these measures will conclude that chipping policies
are within legal limits. The thin veneer of "voluntariness"
coating many of these programs will allow the
judiciary to maintain that individuals are not being
coerced into using the technology.
In situations where the chips are clearly forced on
people, the judgments will deem them to be
undeniable infringements of the right to privacy.
However, they will then invoke the nebulous and
historically shifting standard of "reasonableness"
to pronounce coerced chipping a reasonable
infringement on privacy rights in a context of
demands for governmental efficiency and the pressing
need to enhance security in light of the still
ongoing wars on terror, drugs, and crime.
At this juncture, an unfortunately common tragedy
of modern life will occur: A small child, likely a
photogenic toddler, will be murdered or horrifically
abused. It will happen in one of the media capitals
of the Western world, thereby ensuring non-stop
breathless coverage. Chip manufactures will
recognize this as the opportunity they have been
anticipating for years. With their technology now
largely bug-free, familiar to most citizens and
comparatively inexpensive, manufacturers will
partner with the police to launch a high-profile
campaign encouraging parents to implant their
children "to ensure your own peace of mind."
Special deals will be offered. Implants will be
free, providing the family registers for monitoring
services. Loving but unnerved parents will be
reassured by the ability to integrate tagging with
other functions on their PDA so they can see their
child any time from any place.
Paralleling these developments will be
initiatives that employ the logic of convenience to
entice the increasingly small group of holdouts to
embrace the now common practice of being tagged. At
first, such convenience tagging will be reserved for
the highest echelon of Western society, allowing the
elite to move unencumbered through the physical and
informational corridors of power. Such practices
will spread more widely as the benefits of being
chipped become more prosaic. Chipped individuals
will, for example, move more rapidly through
Indeed, it will ultimately become a condition of
using mass-transit systems that officials be allowed
to monitor your chip. Companies will offer discounts
to individuals who pay by using funds stored on
their embedded chip, on the small-print condition
that the merchant can access large swaths of their
personal data. These "discounts" are effectively
punitive pricing schemes, charging unchipped
individuals more as a way to encourage them to
submit to monitoring. Corporations will seek out the
personal data in hopes of producing ever more
fine-grained customer profiles for marketing
purposes, and to sell to other institutions.
By this point all major organizations will be
looking for opportunities to capitalize on the
possibilities inherent in an almost universally
chipped population. The uses of chips proliferate,
as do the types of discounts. Each new generation of
household technology becomes configured to operate
by interacting with a person's chip.
Finding a computer or appliance that will run though
old-fashioned "hands-on"' interactions becomes
progressively more difficult and costly. Patients in
hospitals and community care will be routinely
chipped, allowing medical staff — or, more
accurately, remote computers — to monitor their
biological systems in real time.
Eager to reduce the health costs associated with
a largely docile citizenry, authorities will provide
tax incentives to individuals who exercise
regularly. Personal chips will be remotely monitored
to ensure that their heart rate is consistent with
an exercise regime.
By now, the actual process of "chipping" for many
individuals will simply involve activating certain
functions of their existing chip. Any prospect of
removing the chip will become increasingly
untenable, as having a chip will be a precondition
for engaging in the main dynamics of modern life,
such as shopping, voting, and driving.
The remaining holdouts will grow increasingly
weary of Luddite jokes and subtle accusations that
they have something to hide. Exasperated at
repeatedly watching neighbours bypass them in
"chipped" lines while they remain subject to the
delays, inconveniences, and costs reserved for the
unchipped, they too will choose the path of least
resistance and get an implant.
In one generation, then, the cultural distaste many
might see as an innate reaction to the prospect of
having our bodies marked like those of an inmate in
a concentration camp will likely fade.
In the coming years some of the most powerful
institutional actors in society will start to align
themselves to entice, coerce, and occasionally
compel the next generation to get an implant.
Now, therefore, is the time to contemplate the
unprecedented dangers of this scenario. The most
serious of these concern how even comparatively
stable modern societies will, in times of fear,
embrace treacherous promises. How would the
prejudices of a Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, or of
southern Klansmen — all of whom were deeply
integrated into the American political establishment
— have manifest themselves in such a world? What
might Hitler, Mao or Milosevic have accomplished if
their citizens were chipped, coded, and remotely
Choirs of testimonials will soon start to sing
the virtues of implants. Calm reassurances will be
forthcoming about democratic traditions, the rule of
law, and privacy rights. History, unfortunately,
shows that things can go disastrously wrong, and
that this happens with disconcerting regularity.
Little in the way of international agreements,
legality, or democratic sensibilities has proved
capable of thwarting single-minded ruthlessness.
"It can't happen here" has become the whispered swan
song of the disappeared. Best to contemplate these
dystopian potentials before we proffer the tender
forearms of our sons and daughters. While we cannot
anticipate all of the positive advantages that might
be derived from this technology, the negative
prospects are almost too terrifying to contemplate.