At first blush, it sounds like the talk of a conspiracy theorist: a company implanting microchips under employees’ skin. But it’s not a conspiracy, and employees are lining up for the opportunity.
On Aug. 1, employees at Three Square Market, a technology company in Wisconsin, can choose to have a chip the size of a grain of rice injected between their thumb and index finger. Once that is done, any task involving radio-frequency identification technology — swiping into the office building, paying for food in the cafeteria — can be accomplished with a wave of the hand.
The program is not mandatory, but as of Monday, more than 50 of 80 employees at the company’s headquarters in River Falls, Wis., had volunteered.
“It was pretty much 100 percent yes right from the get-go for me,” said Sam Bengtson, a software engineer. “In the next five to 10 years, this is going to be something that isn’t scoffed at so much, or is more normal. So I like to jump on the bandwagon with these kind of things early, just to say that I have it.”
Jon Krusell, another software engineer, and Melissa Timmins, the company’s sales director, were more hesitant. Krusell, who said he was excited about the technology, might get a ring with a chip instead. “Because it’s new, I don’t know enough about it yet,” Timmins said. “I’m a little nervous about implanting something into my body.”
“I know down the road, it’s going to be the next big thing, and we’re on the cutting edge of it,” she said.
The program — a partnership between Three Square Market and the Swedish company Biohax International — is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, but it has already been done at a Swedish company, Epicenter. It raises a variety of privacy- and health-related questions.
“Companies often claim that these chips are secure and encrypted,” said Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. But “encrypted” is “a pretty vague term.”
Another potential problem, Acquisti said, is that technology designed for one purpose may later be used for another. 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.
Todd Westby, chief executive of Three Square, emphasized that the chip’s capabilities were limited. “All it is is an RFID chip reader,” he said. “It’s not a GPS tracking device. … Your cellphone does 100 times more reporting of data than does an RFID chip.”
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, the FDA said, the implantation site may become infected, or the chip may migrate elsewhere in the body.