No good reason to ask employees to implant technology, even voluntarily

A Wisconsin vending machine company’s choice to allow employees to implant a RFID microchip simply for the purchase of buying snacks and logging onto computers is troubling from a privacy perspective and poorly considered from a convenience perspective.

Three Square Market (32M) says it’s offering a voluntary program for employees to have a chip implanted into their hands, under the skin between the thumb and forefinger. The River Falls, Wis.-based vending concessions firm is working with Biohax Sweden on the project.

Clearly part of the motivation on 32M’s part in promoting this new program is to get its name in the press as a “micro market” or vending company. If more people had microchips embedded in their hands, it’d clearly be more convenient to pay at their self-serve kiosks and that would lead to more profits for the company.

Employees of 32M can voluntarily have this microchip implanted into their hand.

Unfortunately, the costs to privacy of embedded technology far outweigh the convenience of buying a bag of chips more easily. Especially considering when other companies have already come up with equally convenient and less intrusive solutions for the same benefits.

“There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t fully understand technology that immediately write it off as something that’s going to be very bad,” says Tony Danna, vice-president of international sales at Three Square Market in a video interview with Thomson Reuters.

But I question whether Danna himself fully understands the implications of asking employees to embed a RFID chip in their body. For example, 32M says the chip is “not trackable” because it doesn’t contain GPS capabilities. But GPS isn’t the only way to track someone.

The company itself admits these chips used the same RFID technology found on proximity cards and that it will transmit an identifiable number. There’s a reason that we tend to put those cards in protective magnetic sleeves – it’s too easy to read the information off of them with technology that’s cheap and readily available for anyone to purchase.

Unless 32M is also offering its employees magnetic-shielding gloves to wear with their new microchips, those implanted will now be emitting trackable identifiable information everywhere they go. What if some future government, or other corporation, decided to make an effort to collect this information and compile it to track individuals’ movements en masse?

I guess the employees are supposed to be thankful that taking out the microchip is as easy as “removing a splinter.” Except that in my experience, removing a splinter tends to be quite painful, and that’s when the splinter isn’t entirely embedded under the skin.

Toronto-based Nymi is one company that’s already created a much-less invasive solution that delivers on the exact same convenience benefits of 32M’s approach. Its persistent authentication platform can use a simple wristband to register a person’s unique heart beat and then provide automatic access to a workstation, or payment credentials, and so on.

“The daily routine of putting on a smartwatch or fitness band is not seen as a huge inconvenience, and thus the convenience argument for implantables has become very weak,” writes Nymi founder and CEO Karl Martin in an email. “It’s worth noting that the power dynamic between employer and employee makes the implantable technology even more problematic. Where a low-wage worker may feel compelled to comply, even if it is positioned as a voluntary program.”

Buying snacks hardly seems like the right reason for something as intrusive as implantable microchips.

For its part, 32M says employees also have the option of using RFID technology in a wristband or smart ring.

Implanting microchips into our bodies evokes a visceral reaction from many, verging on biblical allusions. But it just takes common sense to realize there’s a much more convenient solution for employers that want to provide workplace snacks to employees.

Make them free.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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