For medical reasons, implantable technologies such as a pacemaker, help to regulate someone’s heart. Other implanted functions have been used to help the deaf hear and may one day be used for treatments for Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome. They might also in the near future be engineered to help control obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). While information and communication technology (ICT) seems promising on one hand, employees have had microchips embedded in their hands for work issues. Let’s look at this nanotechnology a little more in depth and learn what the implications for these procedures might entail.
Three Square Market
Some 80 of 250 employees of Three Square Market have had chips the size of a large grain of rice embedded into the space between their thumb and forefinger. Their President, Patrick McMullan, got the idea from a business in Sweden where thousands have used the subcutaneous microchips to access buildings or book train tickets, thereby eliminating keycards or other forms of identification. Despite his reservations about the vulnerability of workers, he felt solutions would be forthcoming. Since he couldn’t require his employees to be chipped of course, a party of sorts in the cafeteria where some employees wore tee shirts saying, “I Got Chipped,” plus media attention, and a chip ceremony, got the thing off the ground. A local tattoo artist cleaned the workers’ skin, found a spot in the hand to pinch, and inserted a syringe containing the chip under the skin. A regular band-aid took care of the initial injection.
Basic Chip Functions
The chip system is similar to the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags and hardware. These are attached to some object that can be read at short range via radio waves by a tag reader.
- The tag (or microchip) enters the Radio Frequency (RF) field of the reader.
- RF signal powers the tag (transponder).
- The tag transmits its data (antenna).
- The reader captures data (reader).
- The reader sends data to the computer.
- The computer sends data to the reader.
These micro-parts are encapsulated within a biocompatible material (usually a form of glass) for insertion under the skin. The signal might be some form of identification code which is processed and analyzed to permit (or refuse) access.
Sometimes there is added architecture such as an Interface which can translate data into other communication protocols and manage a network of many Readers. The employees at Three Square Market wear passive tags, which is a “read only” device that lies dormant until it is activated by the RF signal of a Reader, such as the self-checkout of a vending machine, the self-sign-in to initialize a computer, or self-identification to open restricted doors.
Much more complex approaches can involve including a secondary form of identification on the chip, such as a photograph of the wearer for biometric analysis, or a retinal scan for similar purposes. It’s beginning to sound like the latest movie, No?
The first implantable RFID chips for humans were patented around 1997. Estimates of the number of chips implanted worldwide range from 3,000—10,000 users. Most of the wearers were tagged on a voluntary basis. The most significant application is with the Swedish Rail Company, which enable wearers to verify ticket details for vehicle services. The chips were designed to speed up users’ daily routines and make their lives more convenient—accessing their homes, offices, and gyms is as easy as swiping their hands against digital readers.
It would seem that, at present, the RFID chip technology (which is essentially similar to that used in credit cards and similar smart card systems) is not entirely secure. The world of high-tech credit card skimming is thriving. Consumer Reports says: “Stealing debit card information using ‘skimmers’ at gas pumps and ATMs is an old problem… Among the newest tools are “shimmers,” a tiny type of skimmer that’s capable of reading the data from the new chip-based debit and credit cards.” This isn’t too far removed from wearable chipping.
Security concerns with current technology include eavesdropping, cloning, disabling, and unauthorized tag modification. Complications can arise from chipping employees. These include personal privacy complaints, security shortfalls, and workers’ compensation claims should the chips create medical problems for the wearer. Or, how about the need to make medical and religious accommodations if chips become mandatory?
Since their initial development and interest, there have been a number of schemes promoted to increase their security, usually with some form of encryption but it seems from the current, available literature that each idea is swiftly followed by other researchers reporting some way of breach (or hacking) each security measure proposed. Playing devil’s advocate, what if someone duplicated barcode on your microchip, and used it to gain access to an area of the office that has a security clearance level? Other concerns could be he commits a fraud, breaks the law, and then you get framed for it?
In another vein, while these RFID chips in Three Square Market employees currently have no GPS tracking capabilities, what if the employee were suddenly tracked; or the employer monitored what kind of snack you buy, or what foods you eat for health or insurance reasons?
Sarah J. Platt and Keith E. Kopplin, attorneys for Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee, write that, “… depending on where access points are installed, an employer could gain useful information, such as how long an employee spent in the break room, in the same vicinity as another employee who was allegedly harassed, or where material went missing.”
Also, if the employee leaves his job, who owns the data on it? While the chip seems personal, the information probably isn’t. Your new company could share information with the previous firm—there is a vulnerability and opportunity for abuse.
The ability to microchip people for unique positive identification, and for tracking and monitoring reasons are increasingly becoming scrutinized by the legal profession, politicians, human rights advocates, citizens and civil libertarians across various jurisdictions. Here is the statute from the State of California:
4. State of California
4.1 SB 362, Identification Devices: Subcutaneous Implanting
SECTION 1. Section 52.7 is added to the Civil Code,
52.7. (a) Except as provided in subdivision (g), a person shall not require, coerce, or compel any other individual to undergo the subcutaneous implanting of an identification device.
(b) (1) Any person who violates subdivision (a) may be assessed an initial civil penalty of no more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), and no more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) for each day the violation continues until the deficiency is corrected.
(g) This section shall not in any way modify existing statutory or case law regarding the rights of parents or guardians, the rights of children or minors, or the rights of dependent adults.
While there are no reports in the United States of forced RFID chip programs, there are laws in the United States that prohibit the mandatory implantation of such devices. Several states–including North Dakota, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Wisconsin–prohibit the mandatory implantation of an RFID microchip by employers and others.
Steingold, Fred. NOLO. The Employer’s Legal Handbook: Berkeley: NOLO, 2015. Book.
Repa, Barbara Kate J.D. NOLO: Your Rights in the Workplace. Berkley: NOLO, 2010.
European Parliament: “The Use of Chip Implants for Workers”
Friggieri, A., Michael, K. & Michael, M. G. (2009). The legal ramifications of microchipping people in the United States of America—a state legislative comparison. IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (pp. 1-8). Los Alamitos, USA: IEEE. University of Wollongong, Australia (PDF)
National Conference of State Legislatures: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Privacy Laws
Photo courtesy of Paul Hughes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,