Editor’s Column – August 2008

Last month in this column, I mentioned that I was going to look into global positioning systems (GPS) and their […]

Last month in this column, I mentioned that I was going to look into global positioning systems (GPS) and their use by—or on—people with disabilities. Recently, it seems like there’s been a lot in the media about people getting lost and, unable to find their way home, needing to be rescued. The more I looked into the topic, the more uncertain I became about its pros and cons. First of all, could the government force some people with disabilities (for example, those in institutions, or those determined to be “vulnerable” to becoming lost or disoriented) to be chipped with GPS systems? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no; it would be against the Fourth Amendment, especially since the government has no “probable cause” for chipping the general population. But if you’re a government employee, some say the government might have the authority to require you to be chipped. That sounds like something the government would not do, since it would be taking away the liberties of free movement and privacy of American citizens. But what about the benefits to a CIA agent, FBI agent or an undercover police officer who could be tracked to maintain their safety? Of course, they could also be tracked to make sure they’re not becoming counter-agents consorting with the enemy. If implanted GPS were used in the military, we might no longer have families lingering for years, wondering where a missing-in-action soldier might be. The Unknown Soldier could be a thing of the past.

The technology is available, and in bracelet size is already being used in criminal justice for convicted felons on house arrest. The bracelets are also commonly used for individuals on probation. Functional battery technology for implant-sized GPS devices is not available now. But when the technology is available we might as a society be tempted to implant chips into convicted child abusers and sex offenders. We might argue that their loss of liberty is outweighed by our ability to know much sooner if abusers, rapists, or kidnappers are hanging around near playgrounds or schools. But who will monitor all these chips and what will it cost—in money and in our definitions of freedom?

In the disability community, we can imagine benefits for a person in a medical emergency. The chip could hold all of a person’s medical records. Confusion in the emergency room about how to treat a person, prescribed medications, allergies and pre-existing conditions would be known immediately by scanning the information on the chip (or the chip would have a reference number which would allow the retrieval of information from a specialized database). But of course, the information on such chips could increase a person’s vulnerability in other ways if a hacker could access the information or number steal or alter the information like social security numbers, insurance numbers, and credit card numbers.

I wonder what Harriet McBryde Johnson would say about this chip-implanting issue, with her legal background, her insight and ability to look at the big picture, while keeping her own biases out. As an advocate for the disability community, she would probably have been the first person I would have gone to to get a truly philosophical understanding of the implications of this issue for to the disability community. As we mourn her death, issues like this now and in the future will remind us of the huge loss her death is to our community. I never met Ms. Johnson, but Kathleen Hagen has, and has given us a wonderful tribute to Johnson’s life. Hagen was kind to Prof. Peter Singer in her article on the Johnson-Singer debate. The truth is that Harriet McBryde Johnson made Singer, who many have said is one of the most influential philosophers of our time, look naive. There were moments when Johnson rendered Singer speechless. But as Hagen points out, Johnson stayed detached and confident, while asking questions that showed Singer is not consistent in his philosophy or in his personal ethics.
Living an ethical life, consistent with our beliefs, is not easy for any of us. Let’s hope when we get around to big questions like “chip or no-chip,” we can think deeply about our beliefs and the kinds of ethics we need as individuals and as a society.