Security has reached the subcutaneous level for Mexico's attorney general and at least 160 people in his office -- they have been implanted with microchips that get them access to secure areas of their headquarters.
It's a pioneering application of a technology that is widely used in animals but not in humans.
Mexico's top federal prosecutors and investigators began receiving chip implants in their arms in November in order to get access to restricted areas inside the attorney general's headquarters, said Antonio Aceves, general director of Solusat, the company that distributes the microchips in Mexico.
Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha and 160 of his employees were implanted at a cost to taxpayers of $150 for each rice grain-sized chip.
More are scheduled to get "tagged" in coming months, and key members of the Mexican military, the police and the office of President Vicente Fox might follow suit, Aceves said. Fox's office did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for Macedo de la Concha's office said she could not comment on Aceves' statements, citing security concerns. But Macedo himself mentioned the chip program to reporters Monday, saying he had received an implant in his arm. He said the chips were required to enter a new federal anti-crime information center.
"It's only for access, for security," he said.
The chips also could provide more certainty about who accessed sensitive data at any given time. In the past, the biggest security problem for Mexican law enforcement has been corruption by officials themselves.
Chips read by RFID scanners
Aceves said his company eventually hopes to provide Mexican officials with implantable devices that can track their physical location at any given time, but that technology is still under development.
The chips that have been implanted are manufactured by VeriChip Corp., a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions Inc. of Palm Beach, Fla.
They lie dormant under the skin until read by an electromagnetic scanner, which uses a technology known as radio frequency identification, or RFID, that's now getting hot in the inventory and supply chain businesses.
Scott Silverman, Applied Digital Solutions' chief executive, said each of his company's implantable chips has a special identification number that would foil an impostor.
"The technology is out there to duplicate (a chip)," he said. "What can't be stolen is the unique identification number and the information that is tied to that number."
Erik Michielsen, director of RFID analysis at ABI Research Inc., said that in theory the chips could be as secure as existing RFID-based access control systems such as the contactless employee badges widely used in corporate and government facilities.
However, while those systems often employ encryption, Applied Digital's implantable chips do not as yet. Silverman said his company's system is nevertheless safe because its chips can only be read by the company's proprietary scanners.
Thousands sold to distributors worldwide
In addition to the chips sold to the Mexican government, more than 1,000 Mexicans have implanted them for medical reasons, Aceves said. Hospital officials can use a scanning device to download a chip's serial number, which they then use to access a patient's blood type, name and other information on a computer.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve microchips as medical devices in the United States.
Still, Silverman said that his company has sold 7,000 chips to distributors worldwide and that more than 1,000 of those had likely been inserted into customers, mostly for security or identification reasons.
In 2002, a Florida couple and their teenage son had Applied Digital Solutions chips implanted in their arms. The family hoped to someday be able to automatically relay their medical information to emergency room staffers.
The chip originally was developed to track livestock and wildlife and to let pet owners identify runaway animals. The technology was created by Digital Angel Corp., which was acquired by Applied Digital Solutions in 1999.
Because the Applied Digital chips cannot be easily removed -- and are housed in glass capsules designed to break and be unusable if taken out -- they could be even more popular someday if they eventually can incorporate locator capabilities. Already, global positioning system chips have become common accouterments on jewelry or clothing in Mexico.
In fact, in March, Mexican authorities broke up a ring of used-car salesmen turned kidnappers who were known as "Los Chips" because they searched their victims to detect whether they were carrying the chips to help them be located.
AP Technology Writer Brian Bergstein in New York contributed to this report.