Page last updated at 08:29 GMT, Thursday, 28 July 2005 09:29 UK

Implant chip to identify the dead

11 September attack in New York
Dr Seelig first tried the chip after the 11 September attacks
The carnage inflicted by bomb attacks in Egypt, London and across Iraq has raised the problem of how the authorities identify people in an emergency situation.

Whether through natural disaster or man-made, the killing of large numbers of people presents a great challenge to the emergency services, who have to identify the victims as quickly as possible.

One aid to identification advocated by an American company is the VeriChip, a small device containing a unique number injected into a person's arm.

During 11 September, some rescue workers, aware of the huge dangers they were facing, took to writing their badge number on their skin, in case they became victims themselves.

Their attempts to ensure their own identity should the worst happen was spotted by New Jersey surgeon Richard Seelig. Five days later, he injected himself with two rice grain-sized chips, containing a unique number which could be used to identify him.

"I wanted to demonstrate its effectiveness as being used as an identifier for people," Dr Seelig told BBC World Service's Analysis programme.

"Also, I wanted to show it could be as comfortable for a person as not having one, so that it wouldn't interfere with that person's daily life."

Losing anonymity

Following the Asian tsunami which struck on Boxing Day 2004, many thousands of bodies could only be identified by DNA testing - a process that, in some cases, took months to complete.

Similarly, following the bomb blasts on the London Underground, the process of identifying some bodies - particularly on the deep-lying Piccadilly Line - became very difficult, with some families upset by the amount of time it took to confirm a relative had died.

VeriChip advocates argue it could help in these circumstances.

Dr Seelig is now vice president for medical applications at VeriChip, which makes the devices - although it is yet to make a profit.

For my personal goal of being identified in the case of an accident, it does work for me
Dr John Halamka, Harvard Medical School
He had been developing the device for more than a year before the 11 September attacks.

The inspiration to develop it arose during his 20 years as a surgeon and the regular delays caused by patients unable to remember important healthcare information.

He saw that the delays could be eliminated by marrying an identifier to link a person with healthcare information and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

Dr Seelig see three major uses for the chip, all of which relate to the need for access to a patient's medical records.

One is for individuals who have memory impairments, such as Alzheimer's, or those who are unable to speak, such as those who have suffered a stroke.

It may also be very useful for those with chronic diseases, such as heart disease or epilepsy, who can suffer an attack almost instantaneously. Being able to access a person's medical records in such an event could be life-saving.

And the third category, Dr Seelig said, is those who have sophisticated medical devices such as pacemakers, as the details of these devices are very advanced and difficult for someone who is not technically-minded to recall.

Scanned and known

Others are also taking note of the technology. The US Federal Drug Administration, which scrutinises all drugs and medical devices in the US, has given the chip its approval; officials in Mexico have already used the chip as a way of heightening security in sensitive areas; and the Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts now has several hospitals testing the device.

The emergency room at one hospital has been fitted with readers so that anyone who has the chip can be scanned - but Harvard has not yet decided how much emphasis to put on the chip's use.

Aftermath of terror attack in Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh
Devastating attacks can make it very difficult to identify bodies
As part of the trials, Dr John Halamka, the chief information officer at Harvard, has been fitted with the chip in the back of his arm.

"In a sense I've lost my anonymity," he told Analysis. "Anywhere I go I can be scanned and known."

However, he said he had been convinced by the chip.

"The side effects have been none - the readability of the chip has been good," he added.

"So for my personal goal of being identified in the case of an accident, it does work for me."

Identity theft

Others, however, are not as supportive.

"It's a very scary technology," said Katherine Albrecht, a consumer rights analyst and founder of Caspian, a pressure group which opposes RFID.

Ms Albrecht has been tracking the development of the VeriChip.

"It's very de-humanising," she added.

"I would no longer be known as a living, breathing, spiritual person but become known as a single number that would be emanating from a chip in my flesh... essentially becoming a form of human inventory, rather than a human being."

She also argues that the chip is not secure - every time a reader is passed, the number is tracked, whether the user wishes this or not - and contends that being constantly identifiable is not necessarily a good thing.

"A criminal could scan you surreptitiously, then use that information to access other information about you, and potentially do some identity theft," she said.

"The other thing they could do is that, by scanning that number, it's actually quite a simple matter to capture the number and create your own chip with the same number in it.

"You could simply programme a different chip, put it inside an encapsulated device, and put it in your own arm - and at that point you could pose as the individual whose identity you have chosen to steal."

Security under the skin
15 Oct 04 |  Magazine
Barcelona clubbers get chipped
29 Sep 04 |  Technology
US family gets health implants
11 May 02 |  Health

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