Thursday, May 17, 2007

Plan To 'Chip' Alzheimer's Patients Is Giant Step Toward Hell

Plan to 'chip' Alzheimer's patients causes protest

From New Scientist Print Edition.
Celeste Biever

IT LOOKS deceptively familiar. The patient rolls up his sleeve, the doctor sticks a needle into his arm, and soon it's all over. But this is no routine vaccination. Instead, the patient has been injected with a fleck of silicon that will uniquely identify him when zapped with radio waves. Now, nearly three years after their use was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, implantable radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are the focus of a new controversy.

The battle lines are being drawn in a quiet corner of West Palm Beach, Florida. On 12 May, some 30 protesters held an inter-faith prayer vigil outside Alzheimer's Community Care, a day-care facility for people with dementia. At issue is the facility's plan to implant 200 patients with microchips manufactured and donated by VeriChip of nearby Delray Beach. When scanned, the chip reveals a unique ID number, which when entered into a password-protected database gives access to medical information about its owner.

If the plan goes ahead, it will be the first time the technology has been tried on a group of people with a specific mental impairment. The forgetfulness that comes with Alzheimer's can make it impossible for people with the condition to pass on vital information when faced with a medical emergency, which is why advocates are keen to make use of RFID chips with this group.

"If for whatever reason - an automobile accident or hurricane - the person becomes separated from their loved one, they are totally, totally helpless. They can't share what medically is wrong with them," says Mary Barnes of Alzheimer's Community Care. "This could be a safety net."

Privacy advocates say that it is precisely this helplessness that makes the proposed use of the tags unacceptable. "This is a community that is not in a position to give fully informed consent or to say no," says Katherine Albrecht of CASPIAN, a Florida-based consumer rights organization. "The nature of the disease is that they can't fully understand."

Albrecht likens "the violent and invasive act" of implanting a chip in someone who does not have the ability to consent to the act of rape. Others agree with the sentiment, if not the comparison. "This is by definition a way of doing something that denies a person control," says Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "If that doesn't strike at the heart of human dignity, I don't know what does." He and Albrecht would rather see a chip implanted in a bracelet.

Barnes says a bracelet would not be nearly as useful. People might remove it if it got uncomfortable, especially those with Alzheimer's, who might not understand why they should wear it.

Bracelets could also label people as mentally ill, whereas an implanted chip is much less obvious, says Rick Rader of the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The centre, which cares for children with Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism, was in the media spotlight two years ago when it considered using VeriChip's device in a similar study on its patients, a plan that has since been put on the back burner.

At the time there was an outcry from those who saw an implantable RFID as reminiscent of the "mark of the beast", as described in the book of Revelation. As explained on Albrecht's website, the Bible states that people who take the mark of the beast - a mark on the right hand or the forehead that contains a number or a name that is required for buying and selling - will receive a "grievous sore" as well as the "wrath of God", while those who refuse will be rewarded.

It is something Albrecht, a Christian, takes seriously. "I don't think anyone is arguing that the VeriChip implant in its current incarnation would meet that definition," she says. "But the concern for many people is that this would be a necessary precursor to getting to that point and therefore probably should be objected to."

From issue 2604 of New Scientist magazine, 19 May 2007, page 14
© Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

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