Take a 666 chill pill: 'Barcode at birth' author was just joking

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy

Barcode on forehead. Image courtesy of ShutterstockFirst item: science fiction writer Elizabeth Moon does not believe that all humans should be subcutaneously RFID chipped at birth.

This is contrary to what Slashdot contributor Bob the Super Hamste wrote last week.

It's not surprising that Bob the S.H. might come away from listening to the BBC "60 Second Idea to Improve the World" radio segment on Future Wars, for which Moon was one of three guests, thinking that Moon espoused the idea of everyone getting chipped or barcoded at birth, her reasoning being that it would prevent identification mistakes and even allow soldiers to identify combatants from non-combatants.

After all, that's what Moon said.

In doing so, she set off a firestorm of outrage, with hundreds of BBC Future Facebook page commenters alluding to the Nazis already having done it at Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Part of the debate on Facebook

From there, things got out of control. Rational outrage over Big Brother spiraled into nutty outrage over the Mark of the Beast supposedly being represented in UPC barcodes.

How do I know Elizabeth Moon isn't espousing Nazi-like Mark of the Beast chipping or barcoding, particularly given that she actually voiced support of such identification, which she would require if she were, in her words, "Empress of the Universe?"

Because I came across one lone voice of reason in the tidal wave of Facebook commenters. That voice of reason pointed to Elizabeth Moon's blog, in which the author explained how ludicrous it would be to take it all seriously.

Elizabeth Moon. Photo credit: Nancy Whitworth

As Moon explains it, the format of "The Forum" includes a 60-second "idea to change the world" segment. She was told it was the "entertaining, fun part" of the show.

She interpreted that to mean "light-hearted interlude." The BBC asks participants to come up with an idea, "however impractical, impossible, unnecessary, and/or undesirable," she writes.

The BBC staff picks an idea, and the person whose idea it was is then expected to present and defend it.

Moon actually came up with two ideas: the one about chipping, and another one about explosives that degrade into fertilizer instead of hanging around for years waiting to blow people up.

Her description of this idea:

"The other idea was time-limited munitions that wouldn't hang around for years being a hazard for anyone who walks across the ground...though as it was near midnight by then, and I'm a morning person, the complete concept of this didn't hit me until early morning. (Nitrogen-based explosives could be set - one way or another - to degrade to fertilizer. Could be controlled either by departing forces initiating the degradation or environmentally modulated. Maybe 'land-mine-casing-eating bacteria'??)"

Moon was taken aback when people actually took the chip-at-birth idea seriously:

"Seriously...you thought it was for real? … The term 'Empress of the Universe' wasn't a clue that this was a science fiction writer making something up?"

Click. Image courtesy of ShutterstockWhich all leads us to the second item, directly related to the first: sometimes, journalists need to fill rigidly formatted little segments.

Typically, they want the material to be incendiary, since that will garner substantial page views. I refer to such material as "click candy."

Critical thinking doesn't fan the flames of viral outrage. Critical thinking doesn't lead to massive page views.

Critical thinking is apparently a tendency of the minority, given that even after the Facebook commenter had posted an admonishing note about Moon having made it all up, the 666-ers ignored him or her and continued to squawk.

Should all humans be chipped? There are solid reasons to implant data about medical history, medications, allergies and contact information for those with chronic medical conditions.

Are we there yet? No. Issues remain, including microchips leading to cancerous tumors at the site of implant, as well as other adverse tissue reaction and potential chip migration.

As far as the Mark of the Beast goes, fortunately for the internet, Sophos is on top of all matters Satan-related.

Paul Ducklin, from Sophos's Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition - oh, dear, I beg your pardon, that's a typo; Paul is actually Head of Technology, Asia Pacific - owns and, evidently, can read a Greek New Testament.

With said holy book, he has shed light on the appropriate Satanic usage of the number 666 in product version numbering and therefore, if you'll allow me to extrapolate, in human bar coding.

Sophos Anti-Virus 6.6.6To wit: in 2009, Sophos released Sophos Anti-Virus for Linux SAV version 6.6.6, precipitating product management's move to ascertain whether the company was shipping out anti-virus marked with the Number of the Beast.

As it turns out, 666 is actually the number not for Satan him- or her-self (I am not convinced Satan has a gender and tend to associate the fictional entity more with, say, convoluted privacy policies), but for the name of the beast.

Here's what Duck told spooked product managers at the time:

"Product Managers, you may stand down from satanic alert. Firstly, 666 is properly the number of the name of the beast. I challenge you to make a numerological connection - or, indeed, any other sort of connection - between the text 'Sophos Anti-Virus for Linux, September 2009' and the number 666 (and, anyway, the beast is a man, not a computer program). Secondly, the tag we've given to SAV for Linux this month is not the number 666, but the text string 6.6.6."

Likewise, the beast is a gaseous emission, or perhaps a privacy policy, or maybe then again a man romantically involved with Saddam Hussein if you watch South Park, but most definitely not a barcode.

In short: let's leave Elizabeth Moon alone. She wasn't serious about chipping everybody.

A good lesson to take away from this goofball, faux controversy is that the world of security and privacy breeds sensationalistic headlines.

Unfortunately for Ms. Moon, internet hyperbole tends to have a longer shelf life than the quiet voices of reason, because quiet voices of reason don't culminate in click candy headlines and viral outrage.

But for her sake, let's hope that history gets it right.

Barcode on forehead and click images courtesy of Shutterstock.
Elizabeth Moon photo credit: Nancy Whitworth

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13 Responses to Take a 666 chill pill: 'Barcode at birth' author was just joking

  1. grace cha · 1193 days ago

    Incredible, incredible.

  2. Lord Mc.nibbles · 1193 days ago

    This kind of knee-jerk reactionary behaviour drives me up the wall. Hardly a day goes by that I don't see some article being blown out of all proportion by people who really should know better. This is the sort of thing we expect from children, not mature, rational thinking adults.

    I understand these articles are taken out of context for the sake of 'click candy', but if one feels so strongly about a subject that they feel the need to comment then they should take the time to research it.

    I just wish people would heed the advice of my primary school teacher. "Engage brain 'before' opening mouth."

  3. Amethystkorn · 1193 days ago

    This completely reminds me of the old radio broadcast where every one thought the world was being invaded becuz they didn't realize it was a radio "story" program LOL. Some people take a small part of what they hear and blow it up into something it was never meant to be. Humanity seems to thrive on drama and chaos. Funny stuff right here, poor writer was only trying to entertain for Pete's sakes!

  4. jbuck · 1193 days ago

    This will coincide with the anally inserted carbon dioxide (fart) meters required to wear in order to measure and tax individuals carbon gas footprint being released into the atmosphere.

  5. kel · 1193 days ago

    Well, there are definitely people who think this should be done. While the Internet can be quite an echo chamber and things like this do take on a life of their own, it seems like not a very funny or well executed joke. I don't blame people for reacting.

  6. elrond · 1193 days ago

    Frankly speaking, I think it would be better if people thought more and reacted less. Especially, as in this case, the small, but important detail of context seems to have been missed. Oh, and a side benefit, there might be a teeny bit less malware issues in the world, since people would be less inclined to click on *every* link they got sent in a spam or through Facebook.

  7. Sparky · 1193 days ago

    No need for chips or barcodes. We're all uniquely tagged already - by DNA. All that is needed now is a way to read it quickly and easily.

  8. groverdine · 1193 days ago

    The thing I see is that if you don't want people to take you seriously, don't publish your words.

  9. Richard · 1193 days ago

    I thought the *real* number was supposed to be 616?
    Or was Stephen Fry lying to me?

  10. Larry M · 1192 days ago

    Mike Godwin, attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, created Godwin's Law:
    "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

  11. "dunner" · 1189 days ago

    having read a fair bit of ms. moon's work as writer, and familiar with her status as a former u.s. marine, (as i am also) while i sometimes disagree with her in matters of politics i respect her, and would take the "chipping everybody" as a sci-fi writer's joke. as a sci-fi writer she is aware of what is socially and technologically feasible in the real world, nor does she think herself "the empress of the universe", or even want the job. elizabeth is a sane and level headed person and a good writer in her chosen field, and hardly an exemplar of either the looney left or rabid right.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.