Wisconsin Company’s Use of RFID Microchip Implants Raises Questions of Health, Privacy
Employees and experts question the overall safety of RFID chips in human workers.
A company in Wisconsin announced that around 50 of their employees will be implanting RFID chips into their hands for workplace-related tasks. But employees and experts alike are questioning, both for safety and privacy.
Amidst growing speculation that AI will take over jobs, companies are attempting to integrate a variety of technology into their workflow at every organizational level. From the factory floor to the boardroom, workplaces are taking advantage of things like AI and RFID technology to transition industries.
Technology companies are obviously particularly affected, in part because they stand to play a large role in the development and implementation of new ways of approaching the same problems.
A New Kind of Wearable
In Wisconsin, a maker of cafeteria kiosks designed to replace vending machines is in the news for embedding microchips in employee hands. According to an article in USA Today, company officials said it would offer convenience to the 40 workers who wished to bypass company badges and corporate log-ons (any task involving RFID technology) by instead swiping their microchipped hand by a security device, much like a smartphone.
The chip in question, which is implanted in employees' hands.Image courtesy of Three Square Market
In this case, the chips do not contain GPS trackers—but if you’re worried about security, says Three Square Market President Patrick McMullan, you should “take your cell phone and throw it away.”
In Wisconsin, Three Square Market wants it to be a celebration—a local tattoo artist was on hand to complete installation and volunteer employees received an “I’ve been chipped” t-shirt. While it was not mandatory, the New York Times reports that 50 of the company’s 80 employees elected to receive the chip.
Biohax Sweden manufactures the chips and boasts that nearly 3,000 people in Europe are using it. On their site, they refer to the "IoU"—the "Internet of Us", a reference to their goal of making people more connected through technology.
Employee Reactions to Implantable Tech
While many employees are happy to accept a chip the size of a grain of rice placed between their fingers, others are more hesitant. Three Square Market marketing executive Katie Langer chose not to receive the chip because of concerns relating to putting a foreign object in her hand, despite the fact that the chip received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004.
“But that’s still not very long term in my book, so I’d just like to know more about the long-term health effects,” she said in the Chicago Tribune. Langer concedes that she may opt to receive the chip in the future.
Jon Krusell and Melissa Timmins both told the New York Times that they weren’t planning on getting chipped because they were leery of the implanted device but they were excited about the technology. Krusell may get a ring with a chip instead and Timmins expressed nervousness about the possibility of implantation, though she’s happy to be at the forefront of technology.
Chris Malak also opted out. “I have a coworker who can never keep track of their keys thus always asking for mine and no idea what her passwords are. This would be good for her. But as for me, hell no,” he told USA Today in a Facebook Live interview.
A Long List of "What-Ifs" for Security and Health
Those who did not choose to receive the chip and those following along at home seem to oppose it for one of three reasons—health, privacy, and general uneasiness. And perhaps the last is a version of the former, a general uneasiness that boils down to a concern for privacy.
Health concerns, as the New York Times reports, can be difficult to assess, since there’s a lot we don’t know about future implications. The FDA does acknowledge that an implementation site can become infected and it is possible for a chip to migrate.
Chips are removable, which is perhaps why privacy concerns feel more pressing to potential implant recipients. Sam Bengston, who is a software engineer at Three Square Market, received the chip and told the Washington Post that doesn’t have concerns because his information is encrypted, which makes it more secure than a cell phone.
But encrypted can mean a lot of different things. Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College told the New York Times that often, when companies claim that chips are secure and encrypted, they aren’t being specific. “Encrypted is a pretty vague term, which could include anything from a truly secure product to something that is easily hackable,” he said.
He worries that technology designed for one purpose may be used for something else down the road--tracking the length of bathroom and lunch breaks, for example. “Once they are implanted,” he says, “it’s very hard to predict or stop a future widening of their usage.”
Todd Westby, Three Square Market CEO, insists that that isn’t the goal. “All it is is an RFID chip reader. It’s not a GPS tracking device. It’s a passive device and can only give data when data’s requested. Nobody can track you with it,” he said.
Representation of an RFID transponder. Image by Maxpayne473 [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Legal Protection for Employees
Three Square Market employees could elect not to receive the chip, a choice legally guaranteed to them under Wisconsin law. Wisconsin's state legislature reviewed Assembly Bill 290 for "prohibiting the required implanting of a microchip in an individual and providing a penalty" and passed it—over 10 years ago, in 2006.
In 2006, the notion of implantable tech was not necessarily new, but it had only recently been considered possible. In 2004, the FDA to allowed a company to implant chips as a means to access medical documentation and identify patients. That same year, employees of the Mexican Ministry of Justice also had chips implanted for security purposes. Perhaps it was instances such as these that inspired Wisconsin's 2006 legislation.
Six states aside from Wisconsin— North Dakota, California, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Virginia—have laws protecting employees against insertion of microchips if they so choose. All six states passed their legislation between 2006 and 2010, with no new legislation passed since then. But what about the 44 other states? It's hard to say for certain, but additional protections are probably forthcoming, given this renewed interest in implantable tech, particularly as it intersects with employee rights.