Chip Implants: Electronic Leash Would Undermine Our Values
by Dan Gillmor
Mercury News Technology Columnist


September 2, 2000

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
— Benjamin Franklin

WHAT can grease the slippery slope toward tyranny, and erode trust within families? Sometimes, it’s as simple as parents’ love for their children.

A colleague and friend says he’d gladly implant a location-tracking chip in his newborn daughter, to protect her from kidnapping and other threats. He says he wouldn’t misuse such surveillance power. I’m sure he means it. I’m sure other parents would say, and believe, the same things.

This location-tracking product does not exist — yet. Such is the race of technology, however, that it undoubtedly will exist soon enough. By then, I hope my colleague and others in his situation think hard about the consequences if they get what they want.

You can’t blame my colleague and people like him for their wishes. They crave certainty. They want to minimize risk.

But this is an uncertain world. We accept risk in return for civil and economic liberties that, on balance, produce the best overall outcome for society.

Implanting tracking devices in human beings will not ensure safety, because in practice the entire scheme is absurdly flawed. Just as important, maybe more so, it violates essential principles and values.

Before I explain why, let’s separate some issues. There’s nothing objectionable about the general notion of implanting a microprocessor-controlled device into a human body. Ask anyone whose heart beats regularly with the help of a modern pacemaker.

Under certain circumstances, a location-tracking chip would be a wonderful thing. If I were at high risk for a stroke or heart attack, I would agree to implant a chip that would monitor certain vital signs and send a message, including my location, to the nearest emergency medical team. But I would want an iron-clad guarantee that it could divulge my location only if my life were at immediate risk.

Society already uses technology to keep track of the whereabouts of convicted criminals who are under house arrest. Ankle bracelets alert proximity detectors if the wearer has ventured beyond a certain radius. It’s not difficult to imagine a time when house arrest means a temporary chip implant.

It’s a long, long leap from there to putting chips into human beings — even into children we want to protect — in the name of safety.

Consider only a couple of the myriad practical flaws. Can you imagine, for instance, how police departments across the nation would react to the blizzard of false alarms that would arrive as worried parents imagined that their children had ventured afield, or had been kidnapped? The cops, rightly, would stop responding without some way of ensuring that such panic attacks had a basis in reality.

The idea that these implanted beacons could save a child from a determined wrong-doer — or from the child’s own, sensible desire to be free of the electronic leash, for that matter — is also specious.

The transmitter could be defeated by any number of means, such as a well-shielded container that blocked the signal. Black-market removals by trained professionals would become common. Other potential methods of disabling or removing the chips are too gruesome to discuss. Molesters may be evil, but we’d be foolish to count on their stupidity. Children may be parents’ property under the law, but they’re not helpless, particularly when they reach their teens.

Now ponder the absolute certainty that parents would not be the only people with access to the tracking data, and the abuses that would certainly occur as a result. Tracking systems of this sort would be centralize the data, then distribute it, creating a tantalizing target for people who’d misuse the information. Suppose a battered spouse took her chip-implanted child to a shelter, and the batterer used the location data to track them down?

Then there’s law enforcement. Public safety people have impossibly tough jobs at times, but history is littered with law-enforcement corruption and wrongdoing. Do you imagine that the police — or anyone who could get a subpoena for whatever pretext — would resist the chance to use this data? You might think you had sole custody of the information, but you would invariably be wrong.

The practical problems are enough to give any sensible person pause. The principles are more important.

My colleague might, as he insists, use his child-tracking powers only in extreme circumstances. Many other parents would use the technology more freely. A few, no doubt, would turn it into a 24-hour-a-day leash.

That wouldn’t suffice, not for some. Why not implant a device, equipped with a camera and microphone, that transmits everything the child sees and hears? Why not insist on surveillance cameras in all public places, with the data kept indefinitely so we could see who was going where, and when? No, this isn’t possible today, but it will be.

Assume my colleague and his protective brethren stopped with their location-tracking systems. They’d still do something irreparable to the trust that ultimately must emerge between parent and child.

The tether may hold. But it corrodes the soul.

Maybe children would grow up accustomed to the idea. If so, kiss goodbye to our liberty. That generation of adults would see nothing wrong with a pervasive surveillance society, and that’s what we would get. We would have forfeited our fundamental freedoms in return for some illusory security.

Some people, reading this, will be thinking, “But if an embedded chip in every child saved even one life or prevented even one case of abuse, it would be worth the cost.” At the risk of being accused, wrongly, of not caring about children, I have to say, with some qualms at the way this may sound, that it would not be worth the cost.

Risk is part of our lives. We don’t insist that cars protect humans from all injury in the event of a crash. The auto companies could build such cars, but they’d be so expensive to buy, operate and maintain that few people could afford them.

Our criminal justice system accepts some risks for the sake of a relatively free society. We don’t allow the police to torture suspects to obtain confessions. That pesky Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids the authorities from forcing people to incriminate themselves, does mean that some criminals go free. Ditto for the presumption of innocence, which in theory forces prosecutors in criminal trials to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

We aren’t allowed to jail people for crimes they might commit. We don’t allow the police to wiretap people, at least not legally, without sufficient cause to persuade a judge that the spying is warranted.

In other words, we have agreed to be somewhat less safe in order to be vastly more free.

I don’t like the idea of a single person, child or adult, being harmed by criminals. I’ve been the victim of several crimes that might have been solved with pervasive surveillance. But the methods that might have brought several criminals to justice would have been more damaging to all of us.

I admire my colleague’s devotion to his daughter’s well-being. I fear for her future, for the world she’ll live in, if he gets his wish.

Dan Gillmor’s column appears each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Visit Dan’s online column, eJournal:
Phone: (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917.
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