The Practice of Microchipping Employees Raises Ethical, Privacy Concerns

It might not be too far off into the future when more executives start having these conversations. Recently, a Wisconsin tech firm became the first U.S. company to provide chip implants for its employees. More than 50 of the firm’s 85 employees opted to have RFID chips implanted in their hands as part of a voluntary program the company is offering to all employees. The company, Three Square Market (32M), held a “chip party” on Aug. 1 in which a body piercer was on hand to implant the devices in anyone who wanted one. The company, which makes the $300 chips, is picking up the tab.

The FDA-approved chip is about the size of a grain of rice and installed in the fleshy part of the hand between the thumb and forefinger. It can be removed much like squeezing out a splinter.

32M designs software for break room “micro markets” and operates more 2,000 kiosks worldwide. But it is partnering with Swedish tech firm BioHax International to use their chip technology and is promoting the devices as another payment option for its self-checkout products. 32M employees will be able to use the chips to buy snacks from the break room, open doors and log on to their computers, among other tasks.

With the potential for more companies to start considering this technology, the use of microchips on employees raises questions about ethics, privacy, security and health concerns. “One question that I’ve been asking people is: What problem does this really solve?” says Marie desJardins, associate dean and professor in the College of Engineering and IT at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“This technology IS for convenience. It’s not for security. And if people are doing this because they think it’s more secure, I think that’s dangerous.”

Although chip companies are likely developing encryption technology, desJardins cautions that the chips’ security benefits are much lower than you might expect. There’s no PIN or password with microchips, and a fraudster with an RFID scanner could read the code on the chip and then create another chip that responds to that same code.

And while chips can’t get lost the same way a swipe card can, the ways in which information is stolen from them is less detectable. “This is a technology for convenience. It is not for security. And if people are doing this because they think it’s more secure, I think that’s very dangerous,” desJardins says.

Even though the chip program is voluntary, there’s a risk that as more employees opt in, the few remaining holdouts might start feeling pressured to do so. “It becomes this context where you can say something’s voluntary, but if it becomes increasingly difficult to opt out, then it’s not really voluntary in a meaningful way,” desJardins says.

As more companies implement their own chip programs, personal choice could even influence hiring decisions, says Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the national American Civil Liberties Union.

“You might be asked in a job interview, ‘Would you be willing to be chipped?’ And depending on how badly you need that job, you might feel a lot of pressure to do so,” he says.

Privacy is another concern. Three Square Market claims the chip is not trackable and contains only information the employee chooses to associate with it. That’s not to say that other companies that start implanting chips will make the same promise.

Current U.S. laws and regulations don’t necessarily cover these kinds of technology, nor do they make clear who owns the right to a person’s data, desJardins says. And only a handful of states have laws that protect against forced implantation.

32M Vice President Tony Danna, speaking on the same panel of interviewees as desJardins on a recent morning show, expressed enthusiasm about his highly educated staff, and said that the people who understand technology are doing this. desJardins remains skeptical.

“There was kind of this implicit narrative that if you don’t want to go along with this, you’re some kind of backwards luddite who doesn’t understand technology,” she says. “I can tell you that I understand technology very well, and I would not have a microchip implanted—certainly not one that my employer was going to read.”

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Autumn Cafiero Giusti
Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a veteran business writer and editor specializing in global payments, e-commerce and personal finance. She is based in New Orleans.

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