Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kid tracking via microchip: An invasion of privacy or better safe than sorry?

The search for 7-year-old Kyron Horman, who disappeared from his Portland, Oregon, elementary school on June 4 and is still missing, has been reclassified as a criminal investigation, and some parents are wondering whether it's worth revisitng the idea of implanted tracking devices for kids.

The question of whether or not to implant microchips in our children isn't new. In 2002, CNN reported that parents in the United Kingdom were asking for microchip tracking devices for their kids after two 10-year-old girls were abducted and murdered. And Wired magazine wrote about it back in 2003, when Solusat, the Mexican distributor of VeriChip, launched its VeriKid program in Mexico.

What is new is that, in spite of the whole "Big Brother" aspect, and in spite of the obvious privacy issues (not to mention health risks), the microchip may be making a comback.

I brought the topic up over at Boston.com's In the Parenthood blog recently, and was the comments devolved into a (still-interesting) discussion about whether microchipping could be the biblical Mark of the Beast as described in Revelations. Personally, I think -- well, no. (And yes, concerned readers, I have indeed read Revelations.) Several commenters also brought up the fact that microchips and other radio-frequency identification devices don't work like a GPS does -- a point I did make in my post as well -- but while the technology isn't there yet, in the future it might be possible.

But is it necessary?

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 800,000 children are reported missing, but more than half of them are runaways or only missing temporarily. About 204,000 were kidnapped by members of their own family, 58,000 were kidnapped by non-family members whom they know, and just 115 of them were the stereotypical, headline-making "snatched off the street" abductions involving "someone the child does not know or a slight acquaintance who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently."

Even though sterotypical kidnappings are rare, the fact that they happen at all is enough to make parents worry about it could happen to their children. As Kyron's case may show, security measures in schools may not be enough, so why not outfit the child with a permanent tracking system, you know, just in case?

Microchips and other radio-frequency identification devices (RFID) have been imbedded in pets and attached to items in order to track them for years. VeriChip is one; it's been sold in the US since 2002 and was approved for implantation in humans by the FDA in 2004, in spite of the fact that tests from the mid-1990s showed that the implanted microchips had "induced" cancer in laboratory animals, with most of the tumors encasing the implants. By 2007, about 2,000 of the devices had been implanted in humans around the world, The Washington Post reported.

While the current technology available for human implantation doesn't store much data -- just a 16-digit ID number -- the possibilities are there. And though it could provide peace of mind for parents -- police and FBI could track the child with the chip much in the same way security companies can track stolen cars that have RFID devices built-in -- they're easy enough to remove with just a knife (as anyone who has watched The Bourne Identity knows).

So, parents, weigh in: Would you implant a microchip in your child? Do you think it's a "better safe than sorry" move or a sign of helicopter parenting going too far?

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