A Wisconsin company is about to become the first employer in the U.S. to offer microchip implants to its employees. That is correct: microchip implants.
Three Square Market designs software for vending machines, the kind typically found in employee breakrooms. So far, about 50 of the 85 employees have elected to participate. The company CEO, Todd Westby, is betting that his people will trade privacy for convenience. Westby opines that the implantable chips will make the lives of employees better — or at least a little more convenient. The chips are pre-programmed to perform certain mundane functions, including allowing access into company offices and into secure IT networks.
The syringe slides in between the thumb and index finger into the soft, fatty tissue. With a click of the plunger, a rice-sized chip is inserted into the employee’s hand. It is not painless. The RFID chips use electromagnetic fields to communicate and can be read at a distance of no more than six inches. The implants are made by a Swedish company called BioHax International that is aiming to see if radio-frequency chips could have legitimate applications for commercial transactions. So far, this is the first such example of an employer offering to micro-chip their employees in the same way one might micro-chip the family pet.
This seemingly mundane effort to make employees lives more convenient has many privacy advocates in an uproar. We’ve grown accustomed to giving up a certain amount of privacy that was unthinkable 10 years ago. Our smart phone apps collect and, in some cases, disseminate vast amounts of information. Information on who we call, where we’ve been, who we were with. Our phones can even tell how we got there. Our lives are an open, albeit digital, book. Some would say we’ve given up our personal privacy in the name of convenience.
But, injecting a micro-chip into an employee might just be the tipping point in the personal privacy argument to say enough is enough. Once the chips are injected, there is no way for an employee to control what happens next. Today, it’s about convenience, but tomorrow the goals could be much more nefarious.
A new company owner might decide to use the chips to track employee time and attendance for exempt employees. Once inserted, anything is possible, including using the chips to measure the health and productivity of an employee. Does an employee smoke or drink alcohol? Are employees taking their medications on a regular basis? Do employees participate in risky avocations that could be hazardous to the company’s health plans?
Employers might also use this technology to help thwart a labor organizing effort by learning which employees are attending meetings with labor leaders. The HR implications are as endless as they are disturbing.
And what rights do former employees have with regard to their privacy? Is there a process for removing the chips upon termination? Does an employee have to whittle the chip out of their hand with a steak knife in order to guarantee their future privacy?
The world is moving so fast that there are likely few laws and regulations that offer real protection to former employees who volunteered to be micro-chipped.
As our technology continues to evolve, it will be important to carefully consider the implications of convenience. And as advisers, it will be important to ensure that employers are carefully considering the legal and privacy impact of implementing these programs. As has often been said, a little bit of technology can be a dangerous thing.
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