Law enforcement in Mexico goes a bit bionic

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Crime has become such a problem in Mexico that the government has created a fleet of cyborgs to fight it. Call them Mexico's "Robocops."

Sure, the transformation of the 170 or so law-enforcement officials isn't as dramatic as the 1987 movie, where the protagonist was part man, mostly machine. The Mexican officials have been injected with a microchip the size of a grain of rice. Implanted beneath the skin of their arms, it allows them to access a high-level crime database and, they hope, track them if they're kidnapped.

But the first-of-its-kind step shows the lengths to which the Mexican government will go to try to bring safety to the streets.

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Crime - and how to fight it - has long been a challenge here. Kidnapping is spreading, reaching beyond traditional wealthy targets to the middle class. And in a country where only a quarter of all crimes are reported because of fear that bribed cops will expose informants, securing access to sensitive documents has become a priority.

The chip comes from VeriChip, a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions of Palm Beach, Fla. The device is nonremovable (though it can be deactivated) and is slipped under the skin in seconds via a syringe-like device. The chip costs $200, plus $50 a year, in addition to the scanner and software. The technology has existed for years and was originally developed to let pet owners identify stray animals.

The chip sits dormant under the skin and is only "awakened" by a scanner using radio- frequency identification, or RFID. The scanner emits a signal that powers the chip, allowing it to send its identification number. Then, depending on the configuration of the database that is hooked up to the scanner, a door is opened or a database unlocked, the way an ID card allows employees into the office.

Mexico is the first country to go public with its use of the microchip for law-enforcement purposes, says Keith Bolton, president of VeriChip. Mr. Bolton considers the chip the "future of high-tech security" and says that Mexico is sending a message around the world that in certain areas there's a need to reach out to new technology.

VeriChip executives became inspired to use the device on humans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when they saw firefighters heading into the twin towers ID-ing themselves by writing on their arms with magic marker.

"We then realized that our chip was also a product for the human market," Bolton says.

In Mexico, along with controlling access to the data bank, officials also hope it will foil kidnappers by allowing victims to be tracked. Last month Solusat, the VeriChip distributor in Mexico, kicked off a marketing drive to encourage Mexicans wanting an extra layer of antikidnapping protection. But analysts say the technology is not strong enough to put a brake on abductions.

"This isn't a device where you push a button and a light comes up on the board showing where you are," says Lauren Weinstein, founder of Privacy Forum, an online group based in Los Angeles that discusses privacy issues. He says that since the chips depend on their interaction with RFID scanners, an enormous infrastructure of scanners would need to be installed to track victims in a country like Mexico, which is nearly three times the size of Texas. Additionally, says Mr. Weinstein, once kidnappers nab somebody, "They'll just use another high-tech device to extract the chip. It's called a knife."

Experts also worry that kidnappers can easily exploit the technology by using RFID scanners, available over the Internet.

"Let's say you're walking down the street and have an RFID scanner," says Pam Dixon, head of the San Diego-based World Privacy Forum. "If you pass a 'chipped' person, you'll get an RFID hit and know that someone kidnap-worthy has just walked by."

VeriChip says it is developing technology that will allow the chip to work with a satellite system to better find missing people.

Some critics says the device is a public-relations stunt. "Security is at least two-thirds convincing people that they are secure, rather than actually creating a secure environment," says Weinstein.

Critics say high-tech companies profit from selling flashy gadgets where penny-wise and simpler solutions can work just as well. "Maybe the firefighter using magic marker was low tech, but it worked," says Weinstein. "Do you want a guy in a [crisis] situation yelling out, 'Hey, Bob, you got the scanner? You got the batteries?' That's no help."

Companies like VeriChip and Wherify of Redwood Shores, Calif., have yet to see their RFID-enabled gadgets take off in the United States. Aside from marketing to pet owners, VeriChip also is pushing its wares on hospital patients who want to keep their medical records beneath their skin. Wherify has created a bracelet that combines global-positioning system and wireless technologies to let parents keep tabs on their children using the Internet. The US government uses an RFID-based system to track munitions and parolees.

"There's a lot of caution here," says Ms. Dixon. "I see legislation coming down from both the federal and state level to regulate RFID technology before it's adopted too widely."

With limits in the US, chip vendors are pushing their products overseas. Among other places, RFID technology can be spotted in German supermarkets, in a Barcelona nightclub that allows chip-injected customers entry to the VIP room, and, most recently, on student ID cards at a primary school in Osaka, Japan.

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