It sounds like something right out of a sci-fi movie, but a Wisconsin company is the first in the nation to implant microchips that use Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology under the skin of their employees. As of August 1, 2017, employees of the Wisconsin-based technology company, Three Square Market (also called 32M), can opt-in to have a chip the size of a grain of rice injected under their skin between their thumb and index finger.
The purpose of implanting the chip is to allow employees to perform a range of office tasks with a simple wave of their hand such as swiping into the building, paying for food in their break room, or authenticating with their computer systems. No longer will these employees have to carry keys or ID cards. The cost of the implant is approximately $300 and is paid by the organization. Of the approximately 80 employees at Three Square Market, 50 have initially volunteered to be “chipped.” As a way to celebrate the roll out of this technology, the organization held a “chip” implant party.
The RFID chip uses technology called near-field communication (NFC) which is currently in use for things such as contactless credit cards, tracking deliveries, mobile payment systems, and animal tag implants. When activated by a reader a few inches away, a small amount of data flows between the two devices via electromagnetic waves. The implants are “passive,” meaning they contain information that other devices can read, but cannot read information themselves.
Todd Westby, CEO of Three Square Market, stated that he believes that this technology and this process will become common place, “We foresee the use for RFID technology to drive everything from making purchases in our office breakroom market, opening doors, use of copy machines, logging into our office computers, unlocking phones, sharing business cards, storing medical/health information, and used as payment at other RFID terminals. Eventually, this technology will become standardized allowing you to use this as our passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities, etc.”
While the chip technology offers a lot of conveniences, it does raise significant concerns about privacy and whether information on the chip can be hacked. Many question whether organizations could use this technology to track their employee movements such as length of lunches and breaks and their locations –whether at work or on their personal time. According to a Q&A released by Three Square Market, the chips do not contain any sort of GPS capability, “The chip is not trackable and only contains information you choose to associate with it.”
In regards to the ability to hack into the chip, data on it is encrypted similar to credit cards. According to CEO Westby, “The chances of hacking into it are almost non-existent because it’s not connected to the internet. The only way for somebody to get connectivity to it is to basically chop off your hand.”
In addition to privacy concerns, it also raises questions about the safety of the chip. The FDA approved RFID chips for medical purposes 13 years ago and is generally safe, though in rare cases the implantation site can become infected or the chip may migrate to other parts of the body.
While Three Square Market is leading the way in the US, this technology is already in use in Europe. A Swedish startup company called Epicenter routinely offers to implant its workers and its startup members. Epicenter, which is home to more than 100 companies and roughly 2,000 workers, began implanting workers in January 2015. Approximately 150 workers have currently opted to have a chip implanted.
In a show of how safe the technology is, CEO Westbury not only opted to have himself, but his wife and children also implanted with the RFID chip. If an employee later changes their mind, the chip can be surgically removed. For employees that are not ready to take the leap and implant a chip, the organization also offers to place the same technology in a wristband or a ring.
While “chipping” employees isn’t going to become commonplace in the immediate future, it isn’t far-fetched to see organizations as well as employees attracted to the benefits of this technology and its increased adoption down the road. Companies will need to carefully weigh the benefits against the risks such as employee concerns about personal privacy and data protection or perhaps religious or medical accommodations if chip implantation were made mandatory as part of employment.
Sources: NPR.org; NY Times 7/25/2017; Science Alert 7/25/2017; LA Times 4/3/2017