On the Ethics of Microchipping Employees

Recently, the Wisconsin-based Three Square Market (32M) announced plans to offer voluntary microchip implants for its employees, enabling them to open doors, log onto their computers and purchase break room snacks with a simple swipe of the hand.

Despite their press release, 32M isn’t the first company to embed RFID transmitters in its employees. In 2006, the video surveillance company CityWatcher.com injected chips in the arms of selected employees to control access to sensitive areas, and a Spanish nightclub experimented with chipping VIP customers back in 2004, so allow access to special areas of the club and instant payment with a wave of one’s wrist. I’ve been teaching these cases in my “Information Technology Ethics” class or years.

But the 32M story gained a lot of attention these past few weeks, and I was able to share my perspective with the Associated Press, Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin Show, NPR’s All Things Considered, ABC News, and The Washington Post.

Throughout these conversations, I expressed concern that while there might be some convenience gained by no longer having to remember to bring your access card or wallet to work (and employers don’t have to worry about employees improperly sharing access credentials), the potential for potential for “function creep,” where the stated purpose of a technology ends up spilling over into other uses, is much too great. Often what appears to be simple technologies to provide benign conveniences shift into becoming infrastructures of surveillance used for purposes far beyond what was originally intended.

In the case of implanted RFID chips, we cannot predict how scanning technology might evolve and allow someone to read my chip from a distance. We cannot predict if employers might start tracking how much time someone spends in the break room or the bathroom, or whether one is purchasing too much junk food from the vending machines, or what they might do with such surveillance data.

While it is true that our smartphones have more details and invasive tracking abilities, I can turn my smartphone off. I can leave it at my desk. I can manage which apps have permission to track my location or activities. But with an embedded chip, I no longer have any ability to control when it gets scanned or by whom. It easily can become a pervasive surveillance technology.

And while Wisconsin was one of the first states to make it illegal to require employees to have embedded microchips, the “voluntary” aspect of 32M’s “chip party” is questionable. Once the majority of employees get embedded (which seems to be the case here), there will be increased pressure on any holdouts to comply. When your boss suggests something is a good idea, it can be hard for a minority to stand up to such power.

A final thought, that I didn’t share in the various media interviews:

Interestingly, 32M is in the business of selling “micro market” solutions. They create mini-kiosks so businesses and monetize their break rooms, and offer various payment solutions…including RFID scanning. So, in some ways, this push to microchip its own employees is just a PR stunt to draw attention to their own product line. But more troubling to me is the fact that one of the other businesses operated by the same folks is TurnKey Corrections, which, among other services, develops similar kiosk and software solutions to automate commissary and access control systems for jails and prisons. Surveillance technologies have a long history of emerging from the penal system, and I fear that besides 32M employees, there’s a whole other population that is about to be exposed to (involuntary?) microchipping.

1 comment

  1. Good historical context and insight about penal systems.

    I was thinking something more mundane: it’ll be extra sucky when you get fired to have to have it removed (who pays?)!

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