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Chip and Fish: Inadvertent Spies

by Arthur Caplan, Ph.D.

There has been a great deal of fingerpointing, second-guessing and recrimination over the decision by the President to exchange five former Taliban leaders for the American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl.  “You’ve just released five extremely dangerous people, who in my opinion … will rejoin the battlefield,” Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and likely Presidential candidate told Fox News.  Senator John McCain, R-AZ, told ABC news and many other outlets that he would never have supported the swap if he’d known exactly which prisoners would be exchanged given their former high roles in battling the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Put aside for a second whether the five Taliban leaders that were flown to Qatar for Bergdahl are now too old and too long removed from Taliban affairs to resume anything close to their old roles.  Presume, instead, they will eagerly resume where they left off prior to their capture, attacking Americans and others they see as hindering Taliban goals for Afghanistan.  Is it possible that the U.S. did something to these men before letting them go in the swap—surreptitiously implanting them with microchips so that they could be tracked or traced?

Such ‘chipping’ is common for pets and becoming more common for persons with dementia at high risk of wandering from nursing homes.  It might allow surveillance of where the exchanged Taliban prisoners go in terms of enforcing their exile in Qatar for a year or making them inadvertent, unwitting assets for intelligence purposes when they finally do return hom3.

I don’t want to get into the issue of how sophisticated a surgically implanted chip might be or where is the best place to insert such a device to ensure undetectability or long-term functionality.  I do want to raise the issue of whether this form of secret chipping would be ethical since whether it was done with these men or not it is very likely it could be done in the future.

My own view is that implanting tracking or monitoring devices on one’s enemies, military or otherwise, is almost inevitable.  The fact that even the suggestion of being ‘chipped’ might put someone at grave risk as an unintentional spy raises serious issues for those who seek to justify such an act.  On the other hand, chipping POWS or enemy combatants is more humane then trying to waterboard or torture them for reliable information.

I don’t know what the duties of doctors or engineers are when it comes to the emerging world of biochips.

Can you do surgery solely for reasons of national security?  Can you monitor someone only to see where they go in the hopes of finding secret bases or villages harboring enemies?  Nor am I aware that any conventions governing warfare cover the practice.  But it is time to ask.

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