Getting Under Employees’ Skin

No, this story isn’t about a new and unpopular workplace policy sweeping through the nation’s workplaces.

At least not yet.

The Associated Press is reporting today on a Swedish company that turns its willing employees into “cyborgs” by inserting microchips into them:

What could pass for a dystopian vision of the workplace is almost routine at the Swedish startup hub Epicenter. The company offers to implant its workers and startup members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.

Epicenter’s co-founder and CEO Patrick Mesterton told the AP the move will bring a heightened sense of ease for workers:

“The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” he said. “It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys.”

According to the AP, the small implants use Near Field Communication technology, the same as in contactless credit cards or mobile payments: “When activated by a reader a few centimeters (inches) away, a small amount of data flows between the two devices via electromagnetic waves. The implants are ‘passive,’ meaning they contain information that other devices can read, but cannot read information themselves.”

The technology is not new, of course, but it has never been used to tag employees on a broad scale before, and the AP says Epicenter and a handful of other companies “are the first to make chip implants broadly available.”
Way back in 2006, however, colleague Mark McGraw tackled the topic of tagging workers:

Cincinnati-based private video-surveillance company CityWatcher.com recently embedded silicon chips in four of its employees, as the company tested the technology in an effort to control access to a room where it holds security video footage for government agencies and police.

The dime-sized chips, manufactured by Delray Beach, Fla.-based VeriChip Corp., were implanted into the employees’ arms, says Sean Darks, CityWatcher CEO, after the company explored various types of biometric applications such as fingerprint and handprint identification systems. CityWatcher turned to radio-frequency identification chips, a less costly alternative to typical biometric systems, to “make security improvements,” he says, and eliminate the possibility of employees losing or misplacing proximity cards or other forms of identification.

RFID chips are inexpensive radio transmitters that emit a unique identifying signal. The chips are commonly used for tracking merchandise in transit, but they can also be implanted in pets to identify them in the event they’re separated from their owners and can be used in humans for medical purposes — to link patients to their medical records in emergency situations, for instance.

However, CityWatcher’s implementation of RFID is the first known case in which U.S. workers have been “tagged” electronically as a way of identifying them, and is likely to add to a growing controversy surrounding RFID , predicted as one of the next big growth industries.

Not everyone McGraw talked to for the piece was excited at the prospect of having more workers walking around with chips inserted under their skin.

“Whether or not implanting  … chips in humans becomes a common workplace security measure remains to be seen,” said Liz McIntyre, a critic of the technology and the communications director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a nonprofit group focused on consumer privacy issues.  “This is just the beginning,” says McIntyre.
Eleven years later, though, that trend is apparently still in its beginning stages, as the only progress seems to be in the chip’s size shrinking from a dime to a grain of rice, not in expanding the number of companies using such technology.