“There’s no way in the world something that size can communicate with a satellite,” Patton said. “I have expensive systems with batteries on board, and even they can’t be read from a distance greater than a couple hundred meters, with no interference in the way.” Water is a major barrier for radio frequency, he added, and because the human body is mostly made up of water, it would dull the signal, as would metal, concrete and other solid materials.
Xega executives declined to respond to questions about the technical specifications of their products, citing security protocols. When pressed, Kuri acknowledged that a Xega implant would be essentially useless unless the client carried the GPS-enabled transmitter — meaning the chip might bring psychological security but little practical benefit for a rescue operation.
Several other Mexican companies also sell GPS-enabled tracking units with panic buttons, relying on more-proven forms of technology. The transmitters, smaller than a cellphone, can fit on a key chain, and they work by communicating with cellular networks.
“Demand is huge right now,” said Guillermo Medina, director of Max4Systems, which sells the devices for $200, with a $20 basic monthly fee. “Our sales are increasing 20 to 25 percent every month.”
Limits to GPS devices
But researchers say the GPS devices also have limitations. Unlike a GPS-enabled cellphone, which sends a signal only when the user requests location coordinates, a GPS rescue device would have to emit a distress signal at regular intervals — every few minutes or so. That would quickly drain the battery.
And if the device is in an area with no reception — whether a cabin in the woods or the basement of a safe house — its signal can’t be detected.
Then there is the likelihood that kidnappers will dispose of the victim’s belongings soon after the abduction, including any GPS device. Companies have responded by creating GPS-enabled watches or fashion bracelets, which emit a distress signal to a monitoring station, in the hopes of duping kidnappers. “The technology is evolving fast,” said David Roman, Mexico sales manager for the company Globalstar.
Clients often inquire about the chip implants and the GPS units, said Armand Gadoury, managing director of Reston-based Clayton Consultants, a division of the security contracting firm Triple Canopy that has seen its Mexico caseload double since the start of 2010. Gadoury tells clients not to bother.
“The technology just isn’t there,” he said, adding that a fancy-looking tracking device can end up sending an unwanted signal to the criminals: that the person they have abducted has lots of money.
“If the expectation is that you’re going to hit a panic button and that law enforcement is going to mount a raid, then there will be zero planning,” he said. “And that’s even more dangerous for the victim.”