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  1. Science & Tech
12 November 2018

Fears about microchipping employees may be overblown, but it could still happen

We can choose what kind of society we want to live in.

By Mic Wright

A headline on the Daily Telegraph’s front page today paints a stark picture: “British businesses planning to implant microchips in staff.” The paper’s technology news editor tweeted excitedly about the exclusive. And the story spread across the media from nationals to lad sites and trade titles alike. But none of the companies that Biohax, a Swedish firm that provides the £150 implants, claims to be in talks with are named, beyond the hint that one is a major financial services firm with  “hundreds of thousands of employees.’” 

Saying you are “in talks” to do something is the business bragging equivalent of the word “helps” in cosmetics ads — “helps fight the signs of ageing” — it means nothing. Without a contract and a client willing to go on the record, all Biohax has told reporters — and indicated in its company report — is that at least one large UK company has been willing to listen to its idea. It’s a gigantic leap to take that and conclude that plans are in motion to microchip staff. 

In fact, when the Guardian followed up on the Telegraph’s report, three of the “big four” accountancy firms (who would fit the description offered by Biohax) said they would not even consider microchipping employees. The fourth, Deloitte, declined to comment, but it’s reasonable to conclude that it would also be unlikely to push its employees to join the family dog in getting microchipped. 

The CBI and TUC have expressed concern about the potential for UK companies to embrace microchipping for security and employee monitoring, and Labour’s former shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, tweeted: “Is this real? If so, extremely troubling. [The] idea of employers microchipping workers raises massive ethical questions & huge potential for exploitation.” Her concern is overblown in the short term, but it’s far too mild if you’re looking to the future. 

BBC technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, who has previously reported on similar microchipping experiments in Sweden, is right to dismiss the Telegraph report as “massively overwritten” and “a bit of a stunt.” But companies elsewhere have already put similar technology into practice. The US-based software firm, Three Square Market, announced that it was offering microchip implants to employees in August 2017, beginning with a cohort of 50. By August 2018, the MIT Technology Review reported that 80 of the company’s 250 employees had been microchipped. The staff quoted in the article sound happy with their new cyborg reality, but they represent only around a third of the company’s headcount, are quoted in a business profile alongside their boss, and, given the industry they work in, are likely to be more acquiescent to new technology. 

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Only a year into its experiment with microchipped employees, Three Square Market has also yet to face the need to upgrade the implants or data breaches caused by someone “sniffing” out information from one of its employee’s chips. That’s a potential concern since only some of the data stored on them is encrypted. 

If the mere thought of having a chip implanted in you by an employer is unsettling, imagine it being cut out of you by some nefarious individual who wants to gain access to your futuristic workplace. Or even the discussions that will be required to have it removed when you leave the company. It’s all a lot more difficult than handing back your pass and lanyard on your last day. 

Any UK employer that tries to implement a microchipping scheme for staff would face an avalanche of issues — gaining employee consent, maintaining that consent, dealing with religious and philosophical objections, handling the data collected, and dealing with the PR fallout once such a plan became public. It would outweigh any notional convenience. 

Consider the uproar that the Daily Telegraph itself faced in 2016, when it emerged that executives had installed OccupEye, a sensor that tracks body heat to tell organisations when employees are present, at its journalists’ desks. Following a report by BuzzFeed and pressure from the National Union of Journalists, the sensors were swiftly removed. However, other businesses, including Barclays, continue to make use of the technology. 

While today’s Telegraph story is a clear example of a small company getting a lot of press attention by fudging the facts, we need to remain vigilant about the potential for businesses to push ever more intrusive surveillance measures on their staff. 

In January this year, a patent submitted by Amazon — which already subjects warehouse staff to high levels of monitoring — revealed plans for a wristband that would track employees and use haptic feedback to guide their hands to the precise item they are expected to pick from the shelf.  Microchipping isn’t too big a leap from that idea and when people are desperate for a job, consenting to that kind of monitoring could feel like the only option. 

While it’s highly unlikely that we will see a major UK brand implement employee microchipping any time soon, it’s clear that companies have explored these ideas and will continue to talk to firms like Biohax. That’s why legislation around workers’ rights should be frequently updated to account for technological developments that could allow businesses to control employees even more. We are not engaged in an endless trudge towards a Black Mirror-like dystopia. We can choose what kind of society we want to live in and microchipped employees should not be part of it. 

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