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What are the Ethical Issues of Implanting a RFID Microchip in Employees?

Perhaps you’ve heard that a Wisconsin company, Three Square Market (32M), is offering to implant its employees with a RFID microchip the size of a grain of rice. It’s already gone viral. The chip functions as an NFC-powered multi-purpose key / credit card / identification tool that the company sees as the future. The company might not be wrong about that, but is this how our chipped future will or should happen?

32M is a Wisconsin company that sells "micro market technology" running over 2,000 kiosks in break rooms and other locations worldwide. The chips that at least 50 company employees will receive on August 1 will allow them to make purchases at 32M's own break room market, so it sure seems to be an alpha test of a potential product offering as much as it is an unusual perk. To be fair to the company, it is a voluntary program and directly related to its product offerings.

According to the company, "We see this as another payment and identification option that not only can be used in our markets but our other self-checkout / self-service applications that we are now deploying which include convenience stores and fitness centers," said 32M Chief Operating Officer Patrick McMullan.

Employees will also be able to use the chip, implanted between the thumb and index finger, to open doors, use copy machines, log into computers, share business cards and store health information.

"Eventually, this technology will become standardized allowing you to use this as your passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities, etc." commented 32M CEO, Todd Westby. Still, this is not at all how the roll-out of a future in which technology becomes more integrated into our biology should go.

Clearly, it's imperative for any individual who values their privacy and basic agency to own everything that goes into their body. We can imagine a future in which there's plenty of pressure from employers to have chips like the ones 32M is offering implanted, even if it's technically voluntary.

So, it's important to set another standard as soon as possible, which should be individual ownership and control over all implants, not to mention widespread literacy on what they can do and how they work.

From an ethical perspective, the primary issue is workplace trust. Should employees trust their employers that, indeed, the microchip’s functionality will be limited? While an RFID chip doesn't provide a record of all our movements, like say, your smartphone can, it could easily provide enough data to a nosey or unethical supervisor to give any employee pause.

I was surprised that apparently this has already occurred. In August 2015, it was reported that inside a man’s arm was a chip that can crack open businesses’ doors, supposedly protected by smart cards and associated readers that are, in reality, vulnerable to all kinds of circumvention.

The man had a total of four RFID chips he injected into himself with a disturbingly large needle. He used them for various purposes, including one for storing cloned smart cards and another for unlocking his Android phone. He also has a magnet inserted into his finger, extending his senses to feel magnetic fields.

At the DEF CON conference in Las Vegas two years ago, he spoke about ways to install cloned RFID cards into subdermal implants. One problem is using this technique, one could break into offices with just the wave of a hand.

Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, wrote about "The Unknown Known and Knowing the Unknowable." This is quite appropriate for inserting chips to enter the office, log into computers and buy a snack. I became suspicious when I heard employees can make purchases at 32M’s own break room market.

The unforeseen consequences are huge. Might an employee remove the chip themselves and what happens then? Maybe sell it on the black market? The obvious problems are possible infection and privacy issues. The not so obvious problem is the slippery slope of inserting these chips. Where does it end?

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