washingtonpost.com
I Have a Chip, but It's Not on My Shoulder

By Catherine Getches
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Can a microscopic tag be implanted in a person's body to track his every movement? There's actual discussion about that. You will rule on that -- mark my words -- before your tenure is over.

-- Sen. Joseph Biden, to Judge John Roberts at his confirmation hearings, Sept. 12

I can't wait for the day when we all have microchips implanted in our heads. It's exciting to be so close -- pet owners are already implanting VeriChips in their animals to help track them down, motorists have OnStar on call to pinpoint their location in case of emergency, and by 2006 the State Department plans to put Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags into new U.S. passports to keep track of us.

We're already scrutinized by surveillance cameras at stoplights and in public places, and the reauthorized USA Patriot Act gives the feds even more opportunities to search my house. So I say, why bother with all the inevitable lawsuits and legislative hot air? Let's skip to the next logical step. I hereby volunteer to be an RFID guinea pig. Just insert the chip discreetly beneath my scalp, so I can get started on my easy-as-E-ZPass existence.

Think of all the advantages: While you're stuck in line at the supermarket, the better-than-barcode technology embedded in my brain will allow the cashier not just to know who I am and where I've been, but charge my groceries directly to my account. Just a tilt of the neck, and I'm sailing on through. No more fussing with my wallet or wondering which of my overburdened credit cards to use. This is what self-checkout was meant to be.

The possibilities make my head spin. Imagine the time savings if the chip could transmit video, too. That way, whenever I walk into an airport or a gun show or an office, the security folks will see I'm there, what I'm wearing and carrying -- the perfect combination of anonymity and total exposure. Sure, I'd miss those backhanded pat downs in the airport security line, and the pleasant chats with the TSA officers while they root through my dirty laundry. But there's something intangible, even appealing, about being seen invisibly, knowing screeners can probe much deeper, without any effort on my part. (You know, invasions of privacy can be kind of flattering, too, like when a speeding ticket arrives in the mail and right there next to the amount of the fine is, surprise, a photo of my face!)

The beauty of virtual mugging is omnipresent when anyone with a scanner has access to my personal data: my name, medical history, habits, tastes, not only where I bank but what I might want to buy, based on my shopping history. With my head constantly transmitting, companies will be able to triangulate much more than my location. Some critics refer to RFID as "spy chips," but I like to think of it this way: I'm the star of my own virtual reality show.

My bad sense of direction is eradicated with electronic eavesdropping. Once I'm one with OnStar, how can I ever really be lost if someone is always watching me? Sure, the parking ticket guy will have X-ray vision of my guilty pleasures as well as my driving record (maybe he'll think it's cool that I order old "Magnum P.I." episodes via Netflix), but it's so worth it when the McDonald's drive-through captures my frequency, knows the value meal I like and charges my credit card -- with the entire transaction taking place in my head.

Spammers already know my name and e-mail address, so I'm sure I won't find it strange when a police officer pulls me over and brings up a book I recommended last week on Amazon.com. I never wanted to carry a purse in the first place, and now my checkbook-free lifestyle will liberate me. Instead of unloading the contents of my bag and hunting for I.D. at the nightclub, bouncers can frisk all the digital data they want. Nightlife for me will be streamlined-VIP, as back-room bartenders zap drinks to my card, adding a whole new meaning to American Express.

Besides, why would I want to stand in line behind animals for this kind of technology? Pets have enjoyed "smart" labels for 15 years. And it's not just the Irish setter next door who has it so good: Beer kegs, library books, Calvin Klein clothing, baseball tickets and Gillette razors are all equipped with RFID. Now there is talk of laser-coded fruit -- Wal-Mart has placed orders for apples and oranges with tags etched into their wax or tattooed on their skin. (Please, oh please, don't let a banana beat me to bar-coded bliss.)

Here's what I say to anyone who balks and brings up civil liberties or "Big Brother": First, I don't even like that show and second, most people who say they want privacy have a double standard. At U.S.-Canadian border crossings, drivers willingly undergo background checks, fingerprinting, interviews and photographs as part of the Nexus pass commuters' program -- complete exposure for a wait-free crossing. But then the same types get all indignant at giving up a Zip code to the Macy's cashier. Recently, I read that Google's CEO doesn't like being googled. Now that makes my head hurt.

Once I'm equipped with my personal transponder, I'm hoping for more free time. I'm already thinking of ways to spice it up for my voyeurs -- mostly trying to pose and look good for the surveillance cameras popping up everywhere. Some protesters stage "distraction" plays in front of them, but who wants to share the attention?

Now, if I can only figure out how to get advance notice so I can make sure the house is clean before the agents arrive to search it. There has to be a radio frequency that vaporizes dust mites .

Author's e-mail: getchesc@yahoo.com

Catherine Getches, a writer in northern California, is the same person in private as

she is in public.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company