Would You Let Your Employer Microchip You?

A Wisconsin company has generated a lot of recent press for being the first company in the United States to microchip its employees, but it is also generating a fair amount of controversy. The company, Three Square Market, which makes vending machine software, is offering optional Radio Frequency Identification (commonly referred to as “RFID”) chips to employees, implanted in the skin between the thumb and forefinger.

The chips, about the size of a grain of rice, would allow employees to unlock company doors, share business cards, use copy machines, and log on to their computers. The chips could also perform non-work-related functions like storing medical records and passports, making purchases with credit card information, and more. But the chips could also make wearers vulnerable to hackers who could steal personal information and possibly track wearers’ movements, or to unscrupulous bosses or tech-savvy coworkers who have an inappropriate interest in wearers’ activities—not to mention the biological risks such as infection at the implantation site, and rejection or migration of the microchip.

Supporters of the chips say we’ve been safely microchipping pets for years, and your cell phone already allows corporations, governments, and hackers to track your movements, so why not have the convenience of your keys, wallet, and ID right there in your hand where you can never lose or forget them? Skeptics say that chips could easily share too much information with coworkers or supervisors, not to mention identity thieves, or domestic abusers or stalkers looking to find out as much information about a person as possible.

“Companies often claim that these chips are secure and encrypted,” said Alessandro Acquisti, an information technology and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, in an interview with the New York Times. But Acquisti says when a company claims a chip is encrypted, it could mean “anything from a truly secure product to something that is easily hackable.”

Companies and employees will have to grapple with a number of issues related to microchipping workers if the technology becomes more mainstream. While the chips could be an easy way for employers to keep accurate time records for hourly workers, they could also be used to track the exact amount of time an employee spends in the bathroom or out to lunch, without the employee’s permission.

The ownership of the microchip and its data is another issue. In Three Square Market’s case, the company owns the $300 microchips and is providing them to employees at no cost, which is a great deal for an employee who is interested in getting in on the first wave of a new technology, but what happens when that employee leaves the company for a new job? Will the microchip have to be removed, or can it be purchased by the employee or their new employer? Who owns the data on the microchip, and will employers allow that data to be transferred to a new microchip for free? Many of these questions are currently unanswered, and will likely be the subject of future litigation and new state or federal laws.

In the meantime, we can expect more companies and employees to begin considering the benefits and drawbacks of employee microchips. According to Three Square Market, the majority of it employees had a positive reaction and want to be microchipped. It remains to be seen whether this technology will catch on with other U.S. companies, and if microchipping will become the new company ID card.