Could Your Employer Microchip You?

Have you ever sprinted after a bus, only to discover that your ticket isn’t where it should be? Perhaps you fantasise about having psychic powers, parting doors with an imperious flick of the wrist? Then you’re in luck! Hundreds of Swedes have already been fitted with tiny sub-dermal microchips, replacing railcards, house keys, and data storage devices. Here in the UK however, the tech is still viewed with suspicion and distrust. Fresh concerns have cropped up amid reports that certain financial, legal, and engineering companies may encourage employees to get microchipped – apparently with ‘security’ in mind.

Most commonly, an RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip several millimetres across is surgically implanted between the thumb and forefinger. This can then be scanned at airport terminals, security doors, and anywhere else with restricted access. Companies working with sensitive documents may want to adopt chip technology in order to keep certain information from prying eyes. Naturally, this has raised questions surrounding employee tracking and the infringement of personal liberties.

When asked how this trend may affect recent graduates, Ivan Ivanov, school representative for undergraduate Economics at Leeds University Business School, bluntly stated that they “should be very worried”. Citing extreme competition in the labour market, Ivanov posits that graduates may have to “trade off their personal freedom for a competitive advantage” over others. While corporations have thus far assured employees that microchipping will be voluntary, fears around being pressured into the scheme have yet to be addressed.  One of the more valid arguments for RFID implants may be that they’re not powered  – and therefore cannot be tracked by satellite. Other chips are on the market, however, and it’s unlikely to be long before a powered version is mass-produced.

It should be no surprise that human implant technology was pioneered in Sweden, where data privacy concerns are virtually non-existent. Neighbours can easily access one another’s tax returns, revealing a culture of complete transparency. By contrast, the UK has a long-standing reputation as a ‘surveillance state’, with one in four Brits surveyed in 2016 saying they don’t trust their boss. This resentment has been compounded the world over by a recent slew of micro-management technology – from helmets and wristbands that detect stress, to badges that track body language. Many fear that microchips, literally inserted under your skin, represent the ultimate erosion of privacy.

Besides the ethical implications of human implants, a bigger question is raised: is this really the way forward? Those in favour frequently identify with transhumanist philosophy – the idea that we can evolve beyond humanity by enhancing our bodies and minds with sophisticated technology. If this is progress, then it certainly isn’t without a cost. Past attempts to merge man with machine have frequently produced painful and useless results. Such is the case for self-professed ‘biohacker’ Lepht Anonym, who had magnets installed in her fingertips to sense electromagnetic radiation. While microchips leave only a short-term scar after they are installed, the suspicion and anxiety they invoke may linger for generations of workers to come.

Dmitry Fedoseev