By Mark Richards.
Would you let your employer put a microchip in you? Several UK companies want to go down that route, with employers and employees in Sweden and the US already hailing ‘being chipped’ as a success. But surely it is a step too far? Clear evidence that Big Brother is watching us all?
We all know the old joke. ‘He’s perfectly balanced. He’s got a chip on both shoulders.’
Now it appears, we could all have a chip somewhere else as well. If an ever-increasing number of employers get their way…
The practice started in Sweden, where more and more employers are microchipping their staff – yes, in exactly the same way that you microchip your dog. The chip is the size of a grain of rice and goes in between your thumb and forefinger. And it then allows you to pay for things in the workplace, open doors and log-in to those parts of the company’s network you are authorised to log in to. Sensible, convenient, practical and secure: what’s not to like?
Now it is coming to the UK
A Swedish firm called Biohax is apparently in talks with several major UK employers – some with employees in the ‘hundreds of thousands,’ so that would be the NHS to you and me – about microchipping their staff. This would see the grain-of-rice sized microchip implanted in UK employees, in a bid to boost security and stop employees accessing areas and information their employers do not want them to access.
Inevitably, this raises huge privacy and security concerns. But is it not just the next logical development? After all, go back 50 years and employees complained about clocking on and clocking off in British factories. Now we accept it as standard that an employer will monitor our e-mail communications while we are at work. Technology has moved on: and is microchipping your employees – which, after all, is for their own safety, security and convenience – really any different to the spy in the cab of an HGV vehicle? Especially when lorry drivers have been caught watching DVDs and even boiling a kettle while they are driving.
The ethical debate
The big difference is that when you go home your employer is no longer monitoring your e-mails. When a lorry driver steps out of his cab the spy is no longer watching him. If you have a microchip between your thumb and your finger you cannot take it out on the no. 17 bus and pop it back in the next morning. Like your dog, a microchip is for life, not just for Christmas.
So should microchipping employees even be allowed? Both the CBI and the TUC have come out against it. There are valid arguments on both sides and they were touched on in this article in City AM – but let me summarise them for you.
Yes: of course it should be allowed.
Our smartphones already collect data on us and every search we do online provides someone, somewhere with more data. We have no control over that collection but would have control over our own, personal microchip.
In the future, it will make sense for employers to microchip their employees. It will enable them to monitor performance and send automated updates on how to improve your performance at work. And, of course, it could – perhaps working with your company smart watch – monitor vital health signs such as blood pressure and stress levels.
In addition, microchipping all staff would hugely improve security – and reduce the costs of that security – as it would guarantee that only the right staff accessed the right data and/or had entry to certain parts of the office complex.
No: it should never be allowed
What are the arguments against microchipping staff? Well, as a partner with a law firm writes in City AM, ‘the idea of a chip monitoring what we are doing and where we are doing it attacks the very core of a free society.’
(It certainly attacks the very core of the office romance. ‘Chips from 486 and 742 are emitting a simultaneous signal, sir. It appears to be coming from the stationery cupboard…’)
More seriously, a chip at work means a chip at home. Is someone going to stop monitoring your activity simply because you are no longer at work? Human nature dictates that if we can monitor something, we will. And while the noises made about security are all very well, companies and organisations are hacked on a regular basis, meaning that employees’ very personal data would be vulnerable.
A company where it works: Three Square Market
What does Three Square Market do? Well, as far as I can gather from their website they make ‘traditional vending operations’ better. Apparently, only 30% of employees in large firms use traditional vending machines and 32Market (as they like to be known) aim to change that. Biohax boasts about technology ‘moving into the body,’ while 32Market proudly say they ‘use technology to make business better.’
Part of that technology, it seems, is microchipping their employees – and apparently, they love it. ‘When Patrick McMullan wants a diet, Dr Pepper,’ says this article in Technology Review, ‘He pays for it with a wave of his hand.’
Patrick is the boss of 32Market so if anyone was going to get chipped it was him, but now 80 employees have followed suit. He got the idea in Sweden – home of Biohax – and the chips apparently make it easier to move around the building, pay for things from vending machines and log into computers. Around a third of the company’s 250 employees are ‘chipped’ with only two opting to have the chips removed: not surprisingly when they left the company.
‘The future is technology moving into your body’
This has been a disturbing article to write, especially following on from the recent article about social credit scoring in China. But there is the strapline on the Biohax website: the future is technology moving into the body.
Biohax proudly proclaims that it, ‘installs worldwide with more than 1,000 professionals in the financial, healthcare, science and technology sectors are using their Biohax install to live a seamless experience with their connected surroundings.’ (My apologies for the language: it obviously reads better in Swedish.)
What about human nature?
As I have noted above, human nature dictates that if we can monitor something we will. It also dictates that once the technology is here we have to use it. I suspect we will hear more of Biohax.
After all, what about microchipping the elderly who are in care? Automatic monitoring of their health and if they wander off they can be found by GPS in seconds. What about microchipping schoolchildren and their teachers? Why not – it would certainly guarantee that only the right people could access school buildings.
But you go down that route and it is a short step to chips becoming compulsory – ‘for our own safety and security.’
Maybe we would end up needing more than one microchip? One for work, one for the parent-teacher evening and sports day, one for visiting your elderly relative in the care home. ‘I’ve got my hands full’ might take on a rather different meaning…