Our cyborg future has been viewed by some as inevitable; Elon Musk has argued the merging of machine and biological matter is essential for humanity to remain relevant as a species. From health to transportation, this debate is fast moving from the high-minded discussions of futurists to the realm of serious policy debate.
On August 1, Wisconsin-based Three Square Market will hold a “Chip Party,” where it will embed radio frequency identification chips in its own employees. While RFID technologies are not new — the Center for Democracy & Technology issued a set of best practices for RFID chips in 2006 — the shift to embedding RFID and other technologies into human beings suggests the time for establishing smart policies and clearly communicating them to individuals.
“Cyborgification” raises a host of ethical questions, but employer-driven “chipping” poses at least three immediate challenges.
The potential for mission creep
We must be cognizant of how these sorts of technologies can be repurposed. The initial plan put forward by 32M focuses on convenience for employees, allowing them to use an installed RFID chip to seamlessly make purchases in the company break room, open doors, access copy machines and log in to their computers. There are a lot of potential conveniences and technological innovation in this space, but companies and society at large should be mindful of the potential for mission creep.
Social Security numbers are a prime example of how identifiers might be misused or abused. SSNs were established to serve as a unique identifier or username but became a de facto password and authentication tool. An embedded RFID chip could similarly have far more potential applications than initially planned, and an important question to consider is how 32M might use this technology tomorrow.
32M has emphasized that this program involves no GPS tracking, but RFID and GPS are separate technologies. The surveillance and location-tracking potential of RFID systems, however, is no less significant, depending on where sensors are deployed and who may be monitoring. Companies already use RFID systems to track employee behavior and productivity, as well as to understand team cohesiveness, but there is a qualitative difference when this data is derived from an ID badge one can leave at their desk or in their car and a chip embedded under their skin.
The larger vision, according to 32M’s CEO, moves closer to Elon Musk’s cyberhuman, using the RFID as a ticket for public transit or a passport for global travel, even as a portal to access and store health information. Such applications might be valuable to employees or consumers, but they should know that the information they are generating is also providing value to a host of marketers, data brokers and law enforcement entities.
CDT’s RFID best practices emphasize the role of appropriate notice. Companies proposing to chip their employees should provide clear disclosures about the specific purposes for which they collect data from embedded technologies and place limitations on how they use information, including what information is being linked together via RFID functionality. Our best practices also emphasize the importance of individual access to RFID data, but the nuances of individual control for data transmitted, collected, used and shared from technologies that are incorporated into our actual physical bodies is a question that needs to be further addressed. Scalable, standardized and easily accessible user controls will need to be offered to these employees.
Voluntariness and employee consent
32M insists that its chipping program is entirely optional, but the line between voluntary and obligatory is blurry when it comes to the power imbalance inherent in employee-employer relationships. As we’ve seen in the rollout of bring-your-own-device programs, employers have offered employees the supposed benefit of using their own phones and computers for work in exchange for comprehensive monitoring rights. A similar dynamic exists in employer wellness programs. Employees who refuse to participate in a program not only face the stigma of being marked as not being a team player, but they also could end up paying more for their health insurance.
Consent is offered as the solution to these problems, but the contours of what constitutes as or how to obtain meaningful consent to be chipped is unclear. Certainly, an employer would require a potential chipped employee to sign a detailed consent form and waive liability for any allergic reaction or installation mishap, but a rote authorization form seems inadequate for giving away body real estate and a measure of autonomy, all so an employee can wave their hands in front of a vending machine.
European data protection officials have taken a dim view on the notion that employees are ever in the position to meaningfully consent to have their personal data processed by employers. Companies should take note and consider the ethical implications of consent in a context where there is a large power asymmetry. If the private sector cannot adequately address this concern, policymakers may need to raise these questions sooner rather than later.
Safety and security considerations
Finally, it’s an open question of how secure RFID chips are. RFID chips are notorious for leaking information and are, by design, susceptible to eavesdropping and skimming. Companies deploying embedded technologies will need to establish and maintain a reasonable information security program and, in the case of RFID chips, minimize the information stored on the chips themselves.
What protections are in place to protect employees’ privacy when the company changes hands or the employee finds a new job? Beyond removing the RFID chip, which one would hope is a given, what kind of control will an employee have over the data they leave behind? Removing a RFID chip is likely not the most invasive of surgeries, but it is enough to make most people squeamish. Exit interviews, chip removal and a bandage on top probably won’t make anyone’s last day on the job more pleasant.
As we move toward a world where “chipping in” could become part of getting a job, employers, companies and policymakers need to ask and attempt to answer these questions. Employee voices also need to be heard. Certainly, some workers are excited “to be part of the future,” but care should be taken to ensure technology is not used as a tool to exacerbate power imbalances in the workplace.
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