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Beastly Implants

the cat with the cyber eyes
Cashing In Chips: Pets and wildlife have become the official guinea pigs for implanted microchips, which are injected under the skin by a syringe and contain ID information. Animal-control agencies say the chips help return pets to owners, but others fear more apocalyptic uses for the technology.

Illustration by Mott Jordan



Implanted ID tags have become all the rage for saving precious pets. Internal homing devices have the ablility to thwart kidnappers. Now that the future has arrived, would you prefer your chip in your wrist or forehead?

By Michael Mechanic

SURFERS AND KAYAKERS WHO FREQUENT the kelp-filled waters of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary often have the pleasure of coming face to face with sea otters, the playful marine mammals that have so charmed tourists and locals. Unknown to most is that each of these wild animals has been implanted with a tiny microchip and neatly cataloged in a computer database.

The chip, a powerless device the size of a grain of rice, is injected under the animal's skin with a special syringe. Each chip is programmed with a distinctive ID number that can be read using a scanner. The number is linked to a database containing information about each animal.

By this time next year, your family pet will probably have such a chip. "The goal is to microchip all animals," says Lindy Harton, western regional manager for Infopet Identification Systems, one of three major suppliers in the animal microchip market.

Within the next decade, human implants are almost certain to become available, too.

Think it couldn't happen?

Think again. In October 1987, Daniel Man, an Israeli-born plastic surgeon practicing in Boca Raton, Fla., patented a homing device implant designed for humans under the name "Man's Implanted." Unlike the animal chip, the human device runs on long-lasting lith-ium batteries and periodically transmits a signal that would allow authorities to pinpoint a person's exact location using cellular phone towers or helicopters carrying triangulation equipment. The batteries, Man says, could be replenished twice a year--"like an electric toothbrush"--using a charger held against the skin.

Both Man and Zacky Meltzer, the engineer who has helped Man's device take shape, hail from Israel, where terrorism is a constant threat and security issues are paramount. Inspired by several prominent kidnap-murder cases, Man intended the implant for use as a safeguard against child abduction. "When I was a resident in plastic surgery, I was in many situations when this was needed and there wasn't anything like it," says Man. "The idea was to get something very small that would fit outside or inside the body without being detected."

When the bugs are worked out, Man's device could be used to thwart child kidnappers, protect foreign dignitaries, monitor prisoners and protect cars from theft. (Indeed, some models already carry anti-theft transmitters that operate on a similar principle.)

So far, Man's implant has not been marketed. To do so will require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a costly and time-consuming process. But the estimated $500,000 needed to bring the product to market may be forthcoming. Man has been contacted by interested companies, plus government agencies--including the U.S. Navy--which say they want to use the device to track marine mammals. The FBI also has expressed an interest in the device, according to Man's assistant, Faye Shelkofsky.

Man and Beast

"And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake like a dragon. . . . And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads."
Revelation 13:11, 13:16

THE UTILITY OF the device is undeniable, but the Orwellian and biblical ramifications have raised the hackles of civil libertarians, religious groups and militia members, among others, who see the potential for misuse. Some Christians quite literally view Man's invention, or some related technology, as "the mark" used by the Antichrist to identify his followers, according to the Bible book of Revelation.

One believer is Terry Cook, a former Los Angeles county sheriff's deputy and state fraud investigator who penned The Mark of the New World Order, a title found in Christian bookstores. "We're all going to be marked and identified by the year 2001, that's the plan," Cook says. "There are several bills pending to get us national ID cards now. [Microchip implants are] the technology that will be used in 'the mark.' "

Citizen's militia enthusiast Bo Gritz, in his Center for Action newsletter, directly cites Man's invention and lists its potential uses. "Such tags will allow 911 callers to be immediately located by police. Kidnapped children can be instantly recovered, as can older people and others who become disoriented and lost. Soldiers can be tracked to assure their arrival on target. The implant will replace and improve electronic collars for monitoring released criminals."

Gritz, however, comes out implicitly against the idea: "Things that are voluntary today have a way of becoming compulsory tomorrow."

"I don't think there is much difference between a national ID card and a chip under your skin. I won't take either," says Norm Resnick, host of a staunch pro-Israel radio program on the USA Patriot Network.

Man envisions his invention as strictly voluntary, a device that could be worn or carried by those who do not want it under the skin. The surgeon is taken aback by all this talk of Armageddon and by the conspiracy buffs who say his invention could ultimately be used by the government to monitor its citizens. "That is frightening," he says. "I'm looking at the positive aspects of this."

Officials at pet microchip companies say they have no plans to develop a human ID chip, although some admit they have interested customers. "Once people know about our product, they ask, 'What about my mother or father with Alzheimer's disease, who wanders away, or my children, in case of abduction?'" says Keith Myhre, vice president of business development for Infopet. "We tell them what I told you. We have no plans to do anything like that."

At a recent statewide law enforcement symposium on child abduction and sexual predators held at UC­Santa Cruz, the only talk of implanting children with microchips came in response to a reporter's inquiries. Special Agent Gordon McNeil of the FBI, who attended the conference, said he wasn't even aware the technology was available.

A representative on hand from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said microchip implants for children definitely were not on the center's agenda. The organization, she said, encourages parents to have their children's fingerprints taken, but adds that the prints are safeguarded by the parents and only viewed by the authorities if the child turns up missing.

Home Again

PUBLIC SKEPTICISM regarding human implants may run high, but the pet microchips are gaining widespread acceptance. Subcutaneous chips were first conceived for use in thoroughbred horses, and the market for other animals quickly followed. According to Infopet's Harting, less than 2 percent of the cats that end up in animal shelters nationwide are ever returned to their owners.

"In Marin County and San Mateo County, where they've been using the microchip for a number of years, they are now seeing about 20 percent of cats returned to owners--and they attribute that directly to the microchip," she says. "And it will get better, the more animals that have the microchip."

InfoPet, a division of Trace Net Technologies Inc., first began marketing German-made microchips and readers to the pet market in 1988. American Veterinary Identification Devices Inc., AVID for short, joined the animal ID market in 1991 with its own chips and readers. Pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough distributes a similar product called Home Again, manufactured by Destron-Fearing Inc. of St. Paul, Minn.

In 1991, zoos worldwide began microchipping their animals and the Congress of International Trade Endangered Species, comprising more than 100 member countries, also has agreed to start implanting chips in endangered species.

But the biggest potential market is pets. "It's been phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal," says Mar-jory Walker, an AVID customer service representative. "We went from a small company with five to eight employees to having 60 to 70. We have to expand all the time to keep up with the growth."

Harting says there are roughly 110 million cats and dogs in the U.S.--about a quarter of them in California--and that number replenishes itself every five to seven years. "Throughout the country, probably at least a million pets are microchipped," she says. "It's a very small percentage, but growing."

The chip companies supply humane societies and animal shelters with free scanners, and encourage agencies to adopt the new technology. Resolving what had been a major compatibility problem, the companies recently joined forces to produce a scanner capable of reading chips sold by all three companies. This new scanner is currently being distributed to shelters.

If a stray is found to contain a chip, the shelter calls the company toll-free and reports the ID number. If the pet owner has kept updated information in the company's database, the company contacts the owner directly. In some cases, company employees may contact the vet or shelter that injected the chip in order to track down the pet owner's name and number. Ultimately, the pet owner is responsible for keeping the information current.

Advocates of the technology point out that pets that run away in fear following a natural disaster or noisy holidays like Independence Day are easily recovered. Shelters that use the chips report having found pets from other communities or animals that have been missing for six months or more.

"When we first started, we'd return 20 [pets] in a year with the microchip," says Diane Allevato, executive director of the Marin Humane Society, which has implanted a chip in every outgoing animal for the past eight years. "Now it's hundreds. We return microchipped cats every day."

Hearing the success stories, shelters and government agencies have begun to embrace the technology. The state of Hawaii, according to Walker, now requires all cats to be implanted. The city of Novato, in Marin County, passed an ordinance more than a year ago also requiring cats be microchipped as a condition for a mandatory pet license. The city-subsidized license costs only $7, chip included.

The Marin Humane Society has microchipped about 22,000 pets to date, Allevato estimates. "It's the most significant thing that has happened in the lost-and-found business in the past 100 years," she adds.

Following Marin County's lead, some 30 animal shelters across the nation now microchip all outgoing pets. Among them are the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley, the Peninsula Humane Society, and humane societies in Monterey, Somona, San Luis Obispo and San Diego counties. The Los Angeles Humane Society, which sees about 30,000 animals per year--is also gearing up to microchip all adopted animals.

The Santa Cruz SPCA scans incoming animals, and offers implants at the request of pet owners. So far, says SPCA spokesperson Marilee Geyer, routine scans have picked up only a handful of microchipped pets here. But that is likely to change in the near future.

Even slaughterhouses and animal research facilities now scan animals for the chips, to assure they haven't been stolen and resold. "It certainly is the way of the future," Geyer says. "I don't know about having it mandated, but it's probably the best thing you can do to insure your animal is returned."

And technology watchers believe it's only a matter of time before we, too, will carry implants.

Card Sharks

"And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name."
Revelation 13:17

IN REDWOOD CITY last month, a company called Verifone Inc. announced the latest hot item in the commerce world--a lightweight, compact "smart-card" reader. The two-pound gadget soon will be carried by retail outlets and used to accept electronic cash from consumers. Wells Fargo Bank is planning to introduce the "smart" card itself in the Bay Area early next year. This "Personal ATM" or P-ATM card contains a microchip capable of storing many types of information, in this case a cache of digital money, from which purchases would be subtracted.

The reader and card--rechargeable at the bank--together offer a future in which people will no longer have to carry a wad of dirty bills or a pocketful of coins, a world where pickpockets will come away with little and convenience stores may no longer need to fear robberies.

Similar technology is catching on in the public sector. According to a recent Associated Press article, the state of Utah plans to introduce a driver's license sometime next year embedded with an 8 kilobit microchip.

Police officers, by running the card through a reader, will be able to get the same type of information they now take down by hand. The chip may also be used, in the future, to store bank account information, medical records, government documents, hunting and fishing licenses and similar things. Because the card readers are not yet widespread, the license also will contain a bar-code, which can be scanned.

As the new technology's critics see the future, the cards themselves will eventually become obsolete, replaced by a little micro-chip implant--perhaps a combination of Dr. Man's homing device and the P-ATM chip. Terry Cook cites articles in several mainstream daily newspapers that have raised this possibility. "It's interesting," he says, "that when Christians say this is happening, we're all labeled as right-wing, extremist, anti-government freaks and yet the left-wing secular press is reporting the same things."

Future Shock

THE PRESIDENT and his cabinet are dead--slain by a revolutionary force. Martial law is declared. People are told to remain calm and go about their business as usual. But things are not at all normal. Men clad in unfamiliar military uniforms are conducting house-by-house searches. The intellectuals are being taken from the university. Women are dismissed from their jobs, by order of the military. Soon after, all Compucounts (digital bank accounts) owned by women are cut off. Thus begins the restructuring of democratic society into a system in which women are entirely powerless, subjugated by the male "commanders."

Like George Orwell's 1984, this vision of the future, dreamed up by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood for her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, was both a stinging criticism of government intervention in private lives and a warning to readers to be wary, lest such an incredible scenario actually occur.

The future world Orwell created for his readers during the 1940s was one in which people were brainwashed by the government into a state of perfect, blind obedience to a state-created entity known as Big Brother--now a household metaphor for attempts by government to monitor or restrict the citizenry.

The fated year came and went, of course, without fulfillment of the author's fantasies. People still had the freedom to criticize the government--perhaps even an increased freedom to do so. But the Orwellian view still has a powerful impact on mindsets in the Home of the Free, and on subsequent creators.

In the early 1970s, Star Wars producer George Lucas wrote and directed his own take on the Orwellian vision. In Lucas' film, THX1138, Robert Duvall plays a character trapped in a brightly lit, impersonal, underground world of the future where identically clad and shorn people are numbered rather than named, where cops are androids and personal freedom is nonexistent.

In the season premiere of the popular TV series The X-Files, FBI Special Agent Scully discovers that human beings have been cataloged through childhood inoculations, each child marked with a distinctive protein as part of an alien colonization process.

What makes some of these dark predictions all the more intriguing is that the technologies they depend upon are coming into use. Microchip implants. Digital cash. Human tracking devices. A map of the human genetic blueprint available on databases worldwide (fueling fears of eugenics and gene-based discrimination by health insurance conglomerates).

All of these technologies have tremendous potential benefits to humankind, but given the public's general distrust of the government and the propensity of both religion and pop culture to embrace conspiracy theory, it is no surprise that some view the new advances cynically. Even the benign pet microchips have been the target of some who fear they will pave the future for public acceptance of human implants. "We have gotten a number of phone calls from people who want to prove this is the mark of the devil, and from a publicity standpoint we don't need that," notes one pet ID company official.

"Some people have some explosive ideas about it," agrees Info-pet's Harting, adding that she personally believes people should be able to get microchip implants if that is what they want. "The Big Brother angle always comes up. But [the pet microchip] was never intended for use in people."

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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