Oh, Big Brother! Mi­crochips ar­rive for tech firm work­ers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - MAG­GIE AS­TOR

At first blush, it sounds like the talk of a con­spir­acy the­o­rist: a com­pany im­plant­ing mi­crochips un­der em­ploy­ees’ skin. But it’s not a con­spir­acy, and em­ploy­ees are lin­ing up for the op­por­tu­nity.

On Tues­day, em­ploy­ees at Three Square Mar­ket, a tech­nol­ogy com­pany in Wis­con­sin, can choose to have a chip the size of a grain of rice in­jected be­tween their thumb and in­dex fin­ger. Once that is done, any task in­volv­ing ra­dio-fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy — swip­ing into the of­fice build­ing, pay­ing for food in the cafe­te­ria — can be ac­com­plished with a wave of the hand.

The pro­gram is not manda­tory, but as of Mon­day, more than 50 out of 80 em­ploy­ees at Three Square’s head­quar­ters in River Falls, Wis., had vol­un­teered.

“It was pretty much 100 per­cent yes right from the get-go for me,” said Sam Bengt­son, a soft­ware en­gi­neer. “In the next five to 10 years, this is go­ing to be some­thing that isn’t scoffed at so much, or is more nor­mal. So I like to jump on the band­wagon with th­ese kind of things early, just to say that I have it.”

Jon Krusell, an­other soft­ware en­gi­neer, and Melissa Tim­mins, the com­pany’s sales di­rec­tor, were more hes­i­tant. Krusell, who said he was ex­cited about the tech­nol­ogy but leery of an im­planted de­vice, might get a ring with a chip in­stead.

“Be­cause it’s new, I don’t know enough about it yet,” Tim­mins said. “I’m a lit­tle ner­vous about im­plant­ing some­thing into my body.”

Still, “I think it’s pretty ex­cit­ing to be part of some­thing new like this,” she said. “I know down the road, it’s go­ing to be the next big thing, and we’re on the cut­ting edge of it.”

The pro­gram — a part­ner­ship be­tween Three Square Mar­ket and the Swedish com­pany Bio­hax In­ter­na­tional — is be­lieved to be the first of its kind in the United States, but it has al­ready been done at a Swedish com­pany, Epi­cen­ter. It raises a va­ri­ety of ques­tions, pri­vacy- and health-re­lated.

“Com­pa­nies of­ten claim that th­ese chips are se­cure and en­crypted,” said Alessan­dro Ac­quisti, a pro­fes­sor of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and pub­lic pol­icy at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity’s Heinz Col­lege. But “en­crypted” is “a pretty vague term,” he said, “which could in­clude any­thing from a truly se­cure prod­uct to some­thing that is eas­ily hack­able.”

An­other po­ten­tial prob­lem, Ac­quisti said, is that tech­nol­ogy de­signed for one pur­pose can later be used for an­other. A mi­crochip im­planted to­day to al­low for easy build­ing ac­cess and pay­ments could, in the­ory, be used later in more in­va­sive ways: to track the length of em­ploy­ees’ bath­room or lunch breaks, for in­stance, with­out their con­sent or even their knowl­edge.

“Once they are im­planted, it’s very hard to pre­dict or stop a fu­ture widen­ing of their us­age,” Ac­quisti said.

Todd Westby, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Three Square, em­pha­sized that the chip’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties were lim­ited. “No­body can track you with it,” Westby said. “Your cell­phone does 100 times more re­port­ing of data than does an RFID chip.”

Dewey Wahlin, gen­eral man­ager of Three Square, em­pha­sized that the chips are FDA-ap­proved and re­mov­able. “I’m go­ing to have it im­planted in me, and I don’t see any con­cerns,” he said.

While that sen­ti­ment is not univer­sal at Three Square, the re­sponse among em­ploy­ees was mostly pos­i­tive.

“Much to my sur­prise, when we had our ini­tial meet­ing to ask if this was some­thing we wanted to look at do­ing, it was an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of peo­ple that said yes,” Westby said, not­ing that he had ex­pected more re­luc­tance. “It ex­ceeded my ex­pec­ta­tions. Friends, they want to be chipped. My whole fam­ily is be­ing chipped — my two sons, my wife and my­self.”

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