Workplace implantables--Yes, we're going there.

Written BY

Emily Friedman

July 18, 2019

Are workplace implantables a future reality? Implantables are sometimes mentioned as a category of wearable technology, but is a future in which technology becomes more integrated with our biology, in which we voluntarily have technology embedded beneath our skin at work, possible? Some think widespread human microchipping is inevitable; others believe it would mark the end of personal freedom, and still others refer to it as “the eugenics of our time.” If it does happen, Europe will already be ahead of the game.

Today, more than 4,000 people in Sweden have consented to having microchips injected under their skin, and millions more are expected to follow suit as the country trends towards going cashless. In addition to enabling Swedes to pay for things with the swipe of a hand, the technology can be used to ride the train (Sweden’s national railways are entirely biochip-friendly), unlock doors, monitor one’s health, and even enter many Nordic Wellness gyms. At the forefront of the microchip movement are two European firms: BioTeq in the United Kingdom and the Swedish Biohax International founded in 2013. Both firms make a pretty basic chip that’s inserted into the flesh between the thumb and forefinger. The chips don’t contain batteries or tiny advanced computers; they’re powered only when an RFID reader pings them for data.

So, what exactly are microchip implants? They’re mainly passive, read-only devices with a small amount of stored information that communicate with readers over a magnetic field using RFID (radio frequency identification). This is the same technology used to track pets and packages, and you probably carry it in your pocket—most mobile phones and credit cards today are equipped with RFID and U.S. passports have been embedded with RFID chips to deter fraud and improve security since 2007. A simple microchip implant, about the size of a grain of rice, might store an ID code that’s processed by a reader to permit or deny access to a secured area.

Chip implants have survived years of science fiction but they’re not brand new. The first implantable RFID chips for humans were patented in the late 90s. Technological advancements have led to the miniaturization of both monitoring devices and power sources, but so far implantables have only been widely discussed in terms of medical applications. Devices like pacemakers, insulin pumps, etc. are well-known; and doctors are exploring connected implantables capable of capturing vital health data from patients and in some cases administering (drug) treatment. This is changing, especially now that Elon Musk has entered the picture with his plan to implant microchips into human brains!

Much of the fear surrounding human chip implants arises from misinformation, pop culture, and paranoia. The biological risks are no worse than those of body piercings and tattoos. In addition, the chips are compatible with MRI machines, undetectable by airport metal detectors, and not difficult to remove. People have been augmenting their bodies since ancient times and wearing pacemakers for decades now. It’s not a huge leap from having this technology on our bodies via phones and contactless cards to putting it under our skin for easier access and greater convenience. Security and privacy concerns are natural. You hear the words “microchip implant” and visions of a dystopian future in which all your movements are traced and bodies can be hacked immediately come to mind. Though such concerns will likely grow as microchips become more sophisticated, today’s smartphones send far more information about you to Google, Apple, and Facebook than current microchips can. Your browser history is a greater threat to your privacy, I assure you.

That’s not to say that microchip implants are 100% secure (at least one researcher has shown they’re vulnerable to malware) or that there aren’t ethical implications and risks we won’t be able to foresee. Security concerns include eavesdropping, disabling and unauthorized tag modification, not to mention employee rights and religious concerns. Though the chips don’t store much information or have their own power source, it would be possible to use the data to learn about a person’s behavior. Depending on what the implants are used for (and if they have GPS tracking), employers could see how often you show up to work, the number (and length) of your breaks, what you buy, etc. On the upside, it’s not possible to lose a microchip implant like you might another form of ID; but on the downside, you can’t claim that the data didn’t come from you. Thankfully, a number of U.S. states have already introduced laws to prevent employers from forcing staff to be chipped.

A brief, recent history of microchip implants in the workplace

A number of human microchip experiments and pilot projects have received media coverage in recent years. In 2015, for example, digital startup workspace Epicenter began making Biohax chip implants available to employees in Stockholm. The main benefit seems to be convenience: In addition to unlocking doors, the chips allow Epicenter workers to share digital business cards, buy vending machine snacks, and operate printers with a wave of the hand. Outside the company, the implants can be used at any business with NFC readers, which are becoming more and more common in Sweden.

The first American company to try Biohax’s technology was Three Square Market. At a “chip party” hosted by the Wisconsin company in 2018, over 50 employees volunteered to be implanted. 32M has vending kiosks in over 2,000 break rooms and other locations around the world. Ultimately, the company sees the technology as a future payment and identification option in its markets; and it could enable self-service at convenience stores and fitness centers. Today, the tech firm is using the microchips as a perk for employees—a multipurpose key, ID and credit card allowing them to open doors, buy snacks, log into devices, use office equipment, and store health information. Apparently, the company’s also working on a more advanced microchip that would be powered by body heat, equipped with voice recognition, and more.

According to its founder, Biohax is  in talks with legal and financial companies who want to use its technology and has been approached by investors from all over the world; while some financial and engineering firms have reportedly had BioTeq’s chips implanted in staff. There are also isolated cases of tech enthusiasts and self-professed biohackers who have adopted chip implants for convenience or just to embrace new tech. The appeal of implantable RFID and NFC implants comes down to convenience and minimal risk of loss. While the most popular application seems to be replacing physical keys, access cards and passwords for easy entry and increased security, other uses include identification and payment. Chips can also be programmed to suit a business’ unique needs:

Unlock your smartphone, start your car, arrive at your office building and enter the parking garage, pay for your morning coffee, log into the computer at your desk, use the copy machine, share your business card with a potential partner or customer, store your certifications and qualifications, access a high-security area, turn on a forklift, even store emergency health informationall seamlessly, without friction, by having one tiny device implanted between your thumb and index finger.

Would you volunteer for that level of convenience, for an easier and more secure way of opening doors and logging into devices?

Are microchip implants the future, another node in the connected workplace that happens to be beneath the skin? The number of people experimenting with the technology is growing. (You can buy a self-inject RFID chip kit online from Dangerous Things. Warning: It’s not government-approved.) Artist Anthony Antonellis implanted a chip in his hand to store and transfer artworks to his smartphone; and Grindhouse Wetware, a Pittsburg-based open-source biohacking startup, was at one point pursuing powered implants, or “subdermal devices in the body for non-medical purposes.” (Think about a body temperature monitor that controls a Bluetooth thermostat.) And then there’s Elon Musk: Musk co-founded Neuralink in 2016 to create a brain-computer interface. This week, he announced plans to use implanted microchips to connect the human brain to computers. Neuralink sees its technology being used to cure medical conditions like Parkinson’s, to let an amputee control a prosthetic, or to help someone hear, speak or see again. Having already tested its technology on monkeys, Neuralink hopes to begin human testing by 2020. Musk, however, sees a high-bandwidth brain interface as a way for humans to merge with Artificial Intelligence (or be left behind).

So, to chip or not to chip?

For enterprises who do want to experiment or ultimately adopt, here are some suggested precautions:

  • Make it optional: Implants should not be a part of any human resources policy or employment contract. It should be a choice, with the option to remove the chip and destroy its data history at any time.
  • Make sure it really feels optional: Assure there is no pressure to adopt and those who decline a chip implant don’t experience any disadvantage. Offer the same functionality perhaps in a wearable wristband option as 32M has done.
  • Make sure none of the information stored or collected is more than could be found on a smartphone.
  • Focus on controlled environments: Ex. An employee cafeteria. This makes everyday transactions in the workplace easier while reducing the chip’s usefulness to a hacker
  • Use a second security factor: Ex. Combine a cryptographic proof with a biometric option like a fingerprint or retinal scan. Add another layer of security with a Personal Identification Number (PIN) or facial recognition.
  • If the technology ever becomes standard or even required in enterprise, there need to be appropriate exemptions for religious, moral and other beliefs, individual health issues, etc.
  • Keep data protection laws in mind. Consider any information that might be collected or inferred from the data such as access info, patterns of use, etc.

Microchip implants remain a cool experiment on both sides of the Atlantic, but there is no overwhelming need or demand for the technology in the workplace right now. That doesn’t mean implantable technology won’t become socially accepted or shake up a few industries (and the human brain) in the future.

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