A Company Has Implanted Microchips Into Employees. Where Do We Go From Here? (Video)

Today (August 1), some employees at a technology company in Wisconsin will be using microchip technology to perform a handful of routine job-related tasks. But what makes this particular technology noteworthy is that their microchips are implanted inside their bodies. At Three Square Market, 50 out of 80 employees now carry rice-sized computer chips in between their thumbs and index fingers, allowing them to enter work buildings, complete transactions at the office cafeteria, and more – all with the wave of a hand.

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As reported by the New York Times, this seemingly drastic development is likely nothing more than an early example of what will soon become a global trend. Software engineer Sam Bengston, in speaking with the newspaper, said “In the next five to 10 years, this is going to be something that isn’t scoffed at so much, or is more normal.” What was otherwise a seemingly innocuous, run-of-the-mill tech company in America’s Dairyland has now become an industry trendsetter, “believed to be the first of its kind in the United States” to implement the controversial technology. The partnership between Three Square Market and the Swedish company Biohax International is, unsurprisingly, raising concerns and questions about where we’re headed as philosophy and technology continue to merge in ways that are provocative and sometimes frightening.

Some of the darker implications are included in the Times report, based on the opinions of Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. “Companies often claim that these chips are secure and encrypted, but “encrypted [is] a pretty vague term which could include anything from a truly secure product to something that is easily hackable,” he says. As society becomes more used to the concept of microchipped humans, he says it becomes possible that “technology designed for one purpose may later be used for another.” In the context of an employee-employer relationship, “a microchip implanted today to allow for easy building access and payments could, in theory, be used later in more invasive ways: to track the length of employees’ bathroom or lunch breaks, for instance, without their consent or even their knowledge,” writes Maggie Astor.

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However, the CEO of Three Square – Todd Westby – tells the Times that his company is not on the verge of tailspinning into a full-blown “big brother” scenario. Of the chips implanted in his employees he says “[a]ll 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.” He went on to remind us as all that we have far stronger tracking technology within arm’s reach at any given moment. “Your cellphone does 100 times more reporting of data than does an RFID chip.”

Beyond the plainly technological implications are health-related concerns that are leading us into a realm of human development we have yet to fully comprehend, according to the report. Writes Astor, “Health concerns are more difficult to assess. Implantable radio-frequency transponder systems, the technical name for the chips, were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004 for medical uses. But in rare cases, according to the F.D.A., the implantation site may become infected, or the chip may migrate elsewhere in the body.” Thirteen years since it was first approved for “medical uses,” the same technology is now being used for objectively non-medical reasons, a prime example of the philosophical concerns related by Dr. Acquisti.

On NBC’s Today, reporter Ron Mott visited Three Square’s River Falls, Wisconsin headquarters to attend the company’s “Chip Day” party, during which time he showed viewers what the microchips look like, as well as how the implementation process works. In fact, one employee agreed to get implanted on camera.

It’s worth pointing out that being implanted is not a requirement, and that employees who opt out are in no way punished or in jeopardy of losing their employment. As one employee explains, “I was hesitant at first, but I had seven days to think about it. Once I learned the facts, there was no question in my mind.”

Photograph by Laura Schulte.