November 15, 2017

This summer, Three Square Market (also known as 32M), a Wisconsin-based technology company, announced that it was implanting microchips under the skin of its employees. While the process was voluntary, at least 50 of the 80 employees at the company’s headquarters agreed to have a small chip — the size of a grain of rice — implanted between their index finger and thumb. The company held a “chip party” where participating employees received the $300 implant.

Is this practice ethical? Is this a slippery slope to nefarious uses? Is it a confirmation of end time prophecy?

In Christianity, according to the book of Revelation, “He also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.”

While the mark is identified as the numbers 666, some Christians believe that any type of identifying numbers (such as a numerical tattoo or microchip implant) is a mark of the beast or the antichrist. (Some Christians also believe that as we move to a cashless society, the use of debit cards is another mark of the beast.)

Whether you support the mark-of-the-beast theory or not, is implanting microchips a sign of progress, or have we gone over the ethical edge?

Potential for Good – or Not

For employees at Three Square Market, the microchip will certainly provide a level of workplace convenience. They no longer have to keep up with ID badges or credit cards. Simply waving their hand across a sensor allows them to gain entry to the company’s building and log into their computer. And, if they have provided their credit card number, they can also purchase snacks from the vending machine.

Norman Ford, VP for Compliance Solutions at Skillsoft, certainly believes that microchip implants have the potential for good. “Imagine all of your personal and financial information/credit cards being kept on your chip,” Ford told me. “With a wave of your hand, you can make a safe and secure purchase, verify your identity, or even monitor your health.”

Ford said children or elderly parents implanted with a GPS locator could always be found if they wandered off. “These wonderful possibilities are what is going to drive this technology forward.”

Microchips in Healthcare

Microchipping humans isn’t new, especially in the healthcare sectorIn 2004, Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions received FDA approval to market the use of Verichips: an ID chip implanted under the skin that would be used for medical purposes. The chip would contain a 16-digit number that could be scanned by medical personnel ranging from EMTs to doctors.

Also, Microchips Biotech is developing an implant that can store and release doses of medication on a pre-determined schedule. The process was tested on a group of women with osteoporosis, and the study reveals that the absorption levels between the microchipped group and the women taking medications on a daily basis were the same — in fact, dosing schedules were more consistent among the microchipped group.

Last year, Dr. William Fissell, a nephrologist at Vanderbilt University, began working on an implantable artificial kidney that contains microchips — and living kidney cells — and can eliminate the need for dialysis. Fissell and a research colleague were awarded a $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, and the FDA has approved the project to be fast-tracked. 

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, over 661,000 people in the U.S. are affected by kidney failure, and 468,000 are on dialysis. More people die from kidney disease than from prostate or breast cancer. I wonder how many individuals with end-stage kidney renal disease would be in favor of or against an implantable artificial kidney. However, since the stakes are higher in the healthcare industry, where a microchip implant can be the difference between sickness or health, or even life or death, the issue may be more black and white in this area.

Employee Tracking

“While the idea of microchipping people is not new, this story takes the conversation a step farther in that an employer is 'offering' to chip its employees,” Ford said. “For now, the chips are voluntary and fairly innocuous, and from what I understand, they do not connect to a GPS and they do not collect or report data on the employee.”

But Ford wonders what would happen if any of those factors change in the future. “The chips are voluntary now, but is there any intended or perceived pressure to do it, either by supervisors or coworkers?”

And he brings up other questions about the voluntary nature of implanting microchips in employees. “Are chipless workers now at a competitive disadvantage compared to their chipped peers because the latter have better access, and are more efficient?” Ford asks. “Are performance reports or hiring decisions influenced by an employee’s willingness to wear a chip?”

If this is the case, Ford argues that there’s definitely a slippery slope. “You would be well down the hill once chips are deemed mandatory.”

And these are some of the reasons Carole Lieberman, M.D., M.P.H., a Beverly Hills-based forensic psychiatrist, strongly believes that it is not ethical to implant microchips in employees or any humans. “When I heard of a company implanting microchips, I found it hard to believe,” Lieberman told me. “It seems more like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ than reality.”

Although Three Square Market said all of its implanted workers have undergone this process voluntarily, Lieberman is not convinced this is the case. “Employees, who agreed to be implanted, clearly would have felt pressure to do so, and would have been afraid of losing their job if they didn’t agree,” Lieberman said.

And, she’s skeptical that there are benevolent reasons for these actions. “Although company bigwigs claim that implanted microchips will make things better for the employees — by allowing them to log into their computers more easily, buy snacks and so on, there is nothing stopping employers from later using them to track the employees’ whereabouts and their activities outside of the workplace.”

The company has also stated in a follow-up release that employees who like the convenience provided by RFID technology, but don’t want an implant, can choose to have the chip placed in an RFID wristband or smart ring. That may be an acceptable compromise to reluctant employees — but, how would these workers know if they would be at risk of being blackballed for rejecting an actual implant? And what would happen if they also rejected the wristband or ring?

Workplace monitoring, behavioral analytics and employee privacy are already concerns for many workers and privacy experts, and while the company says the chips are not trackable and do not contain GPS capabilities, this may be subject to change — without notification.

According to Michael Zimmer, PhD, associate professor of the School of Information Studies, and director of the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “An embedded microchip isn’t inherently ethical or unethical; it depends on the context and use.” However, Zimmer told me, “The potential for tracking a chip’s location without the individual’s knowledge does bring to mind ethical concerns about privacy and surveillance.”

And privacy issues are a real concern, primarily because employees could be tracked without their knowledge. “Scanners could be hidden in various environments and a person wouldn’t know if and when their chip’s presence is being recorded,” Zimmer said. “In contrast to tracking someone via a cellphone or key fob, one cannot remove or turn off their embedded chip.” As a result, he says they have little to no control over who is accessing their information, or where or how.

However, while implanting microchips in employees is new to the U.S., Epicenter, a Swedish tech company, implanted 150 of its workers back in 2015. A BBC reporter had a chip implanted in his skin to learn more about the process.  He tested it out on the photocopier and discovered that it wasn’t as seamless as advertised: he needed to contort his hand to make the copier work. The reporter also spoke with an executive at the company who stated that he stores his business card info in his chip, which can be accessed by swiping a smartphone.

Identity Theft Issues

If information is so easily and conveniently accessed, does this increase the potential for identity theft?  “There is always the possibility of a bad actor surreptitiously capturing the signal from a nearby RFID chip,” Zimmer said. “The potential for identity theft as a result is largely based on what information is being transmitted, and whether there is any encryption.”

As a point of reference, he explains that Apple Pay does not transmit credit card information, so someone intercepting the transmission wouldn’t gain valuable information. “But an implant-based system with poor information security practices could be susceptible to identity theft.”

Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

Because the potential exists for employers to use data from implanted chips against employees, Ford believes that legislation similar to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) should be enacted.

“GINA was designed to protect workers from possible discrimination based on their genetic information,” Ford said. “The act seeks to prevent discrimination against workers and individuals by employers and insurance providers based on the possibility that an individual could be genetically predisposed to an illness or disease.”

Examples of workplace discrimination include using this information to make decisions regarding hiring, pay, promotions, firing, or any other terms of employment. “I think that as microchipping people becomes more widely accepted and adopted, legislation similar to GINA will be enacted, at least, I certainly hope so,” Ford said.

Terri Williams 
writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.