By now you’ve probably heard about the small Wisconsin based company that held a “chipping party” for its employees. No dips were involved, but just under half of the company’s 85 employees did line up to have a microchip about the size of a grain of rice implanted into their hand.
People getting microchips, or by the official terminology, RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips implanted inside their bodies may sound a bit Sci-Fi, but the truth is the basic technology of the chips themselves has been around for years—getting our dogs and cats “chipped” for identification purposes is basically standard procedure these days.
Based on the less than flattering publicity that the “chipping party” received, you probably won’t be adding “microchips” as a line-item in next year’s budget. But for those of us in the world of HR whose job it is to worry about these kinds of things and how they could impact the workplace, here are a few considerations about RFID chips that might help you sleep better at night.
An isolated case
The company that “chipped” it’s employees? It’s called “Three Square Market” and it just so happens to be a software company specializing in high tech vending machines. As in vending machines that can be outfitted with RFID chip readers.
Purchasing foodstuffs from the breakroom vending machines literally with the wave of the hand is one of the conveniences that employees who were “chipped” will now enjoy. The point being, the company has a vested business interest in having this technology succeed, so of course they are on the cutting edge of the technology.
RFID chips are [almost] completely unregulated
With the exception of the FDA approval process for implantation/use of the devices themselves, when it comes to RFID chips in the workplace, it is basically the Wild-West. Not exactly reassuring? As with any new technology or workplace trend, the regulations will come as the uptake expands and becomes more mainstream.
The good news here is you don’t have to be the guinea pig if you don’t want to be. But it is a pretty safe bet that once the first law suit hits, the regulations will start rolling out from Washington, DC and fast.
Getting back to the case of Three Square Market, the microchips are at face value quite convenient. We should also note here that getting “chipped” was also completely voluntary (whether or not a request made by an employer to an employee can be truly voluntary is a whole other can-of-ethical-worms that we won’t open right here).
No more ID badge or keys to carry around, the chip will let you in the door at the office, not to mention keep you out of any areas where you don’t belong. Too many passwords to remember? Not a problem, your handy microchip will log you into the network without missing a beat.
Last but not least, carrying around all of that loose change in your pockets will be a thing of the past, because now you can buy your snack of choice from the vending machines using your microchip that is attached to an account with your name on it.
To slippery slope...
Of course, then your employer could, in theory, figure out what kind of snacks you are buying. Did you pick the baked potato chips or regular fried ones? The bottled water or a soda? What if then, after a few too many candy bar purchases, your insurance premiums suddenly went up?
What if someone duplicated your barcode on your microchip, uses it to gain access to information or an area of the office that is way above their security clearance level, commits a fraud, and then you get framed for it? Think high-tech credit card skimming, or the plot of the latest summer blockbuster movie.
A little less Hollywood, but definitely still within the realm of possibility, is RFID chips as a deterrent to the right to unionize. If the scanners for the microchips know who was where in the office and when, employers could figure out who attended meetings that were attempts to organize. As a protected concerted activity, employers could put themselves in legal peril if disciplinary action or termination of employment of an employee “tracked” at one of these meetings followed suit.
What if the organizing meeting, or any activity that an employee may not want their employer to know about for whatever reason (i.e. visiting the offices of a competitor for a job interview, a trip to the doctor’s office, a political rally, etc.), could then get back to the employer?
What if you land that new job and leave the company? Even if your chip gets removed (apparently a fairly simply process, like removing a big splinter), where does that data go once you leave and what if the removal doesn’t go as planned?
The bottom line
Now, most employers wouldn’t dream of using microchips for the more nefarious purposes outlined above, but basically, we are looking at the potential for a privacy nightmare on all sides of the equation. In addition, the way the technology functions today (the microchip must be within just a few inches of the scanner for the chip to be activated and recognized by the receiver) some of the “slippery slope” scenarios are a bit of a stretch anyhow.
Despite all of these complicating factors, it does seem likely that microchips will become more commonplace in our society, and, as unappealing as it may sound to some, in our bodies, than they are now.
Whether or not the workplace is the ideal application for the technology and how the technology will be regulated remains to be seen. For now though, it’s probably safe to say that at least in HR, we can all go back to worrying more about whether or not we are capturing all of the situations that qualify for FMLA and less about how many candy bars Joe Smith bought from the vending machine in the breakroom.
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