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I’m Not a Number; I’m a Human Being: RFID Tags and Our Personas

Swedish athletes Carolina Klüft and Stefan Holm (currently reigning Olympic champions in the heptathlon and high-jump events) recently suggested that elite athletes might have an obligation to implant chips or carry GPS transmitters in order to allow anti-doping organisations to track them. Meanwhile medical researchers debate whether patients should be tagged implanted chips for identification purposes. While such suggestions almost universally provoke a shudder and remarks about Orwell’s 1984 other people voluntarily chip themselves: some to access nightclubs, others to "hack" themselves. We might resist some privacy invasions, but eagerly invite others. Should we just get it over with and let the government tag us all?

RFID tags are rapidly becoming
very cheap and ubiquitous. Each tag has an unique identifier that can be sent
through short-range radio when it passes by a reader. While advanced chips can
contain extra information and allow it to be changed most tags just indicate
which tag they are, without containing personal information.

What would the use of tagging patients be?
Most patients are able to tell doctors and nurses who they are and their
medical history, but not all. Patients with dementia, confusion or a tendency
to faint will have problems. Physically active patients such as mountain
climbers may predict that if they end up in hospital they may likely be unconscious,
and so on. A more deep problem tagging could help is the fractured medical
record: at present the information about a patient tends to be distributed in
many different databases and records, and essential information is often hard
to retrieve. It is hoped by some that tags could help enable effective
electronic health records and even patient ownership of the health records.
Others are more sceptical, calling it “a kind of license plate for people” and point out both security
and privacy concerns. It is possible to imitate the ID signal with the right
equipment, and the patient could in principle be tracked in a building.

In the case of athletes, Klüft and Holm’s
ideas are due to the tedious demands of frequent doping tests. Since these have
to occur at random, athletes have to tell the authorities their movement three
weeks ahead. This is an amazing reduction of personal privacy and freedom in
itself, even leaving out the semi-public nature of the test results. No other
Swedish profession, not even nuclear power plant workers or high level military
personnel, has such restrictions on their freedom and privacy despite having
arguably far more sensitive jobs. Automatic reporting of athlete whereabouts
would actually increase personal freedom.

US states are introducing laws making RFID implantation voluntary
order to prevent e.g. employers from demanding implants. But as the case of the
athletes demonstrate, in some situations the social pressure may plausibly override
individual desires. An athlete refusing to be tracked would automatically be
regarded as suspect not only by their organisation but by the public too.

Banning implanted tags is equally a
non-starter, since other forms of identification are becoming equally powerful:
tags worn in one’s clothing, one’s cell phone, various forms of biometric
recognition. Once anonymity was the norm and identifying oneself required extra
measures. Now anonymity may become the exception.

However, that choice still remains crucial.
A totally anonymous society would not be stable since crimes could be committed
with no repercussions. Normally we do not mind – or actually promote – being
identifiable. Some may argue that having a separate and recognized identity is
necessary for personhood. At the very least many people spend much time
cultivating their social identities. However, a totally identifiable society
has many obvious risks that
may or may not be manageable
. There are vulnerable people (such as
battered wives, sufferers of a stigmatizing conditions and whistle-blowers) who have
a valid need for anonymous interactions. Given past experience with corporate
and government database incompetence, a too fixed identity may also be risky.

This suggests that safeguarding people’s
right and ability to shift social personas is of prime importance. While we
move between different contexts we also move between different identities. As
long as we are patients it is a good thing to be tied to a patient ID; we might
broadcast our personal identity normally but not when on masquerade or telling
a journalist about government malfeasance.

This requires more than making tags
voluntary. This requires deliberately promoting tags that are under the control
of their wearer. At the simplest they should be possible to turn off and
removable. Ideally they should be able to broadcast different identities in
different contexts, or only reveal identity to authorized recipients (something
which is becoming technically
). While largely a technical and legal issue it requires
public interest and support to happen, otherwise a solution of least effort is
more likely, reducing both privacy and control.

Recognizing the human need for different
personas in different parts of life also suggests that there is a problem with
the athletes’ position. Over the past years the escalating war on doping has
led to an extraordinary situation where athletes are treated essentially like
possibly criminal bodies, with no distinction between in-sport and out of sport
life. That is in itself dehumanizing. From a human rights perspective it would
be moral to ease this treatment.


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