Mark Taylor examines the legal and moral implications behind the latest productivity tool taken up by UK companies: personal identification microchip technology.
Smart tracking software is the latest tech trend to hit the accounting profession, as increasingly sophisticated technology promises more accuracy in logging payroll expenses and employee hours.
Some companies are going a step further than mere software in pursuit of efficiency and cost-savings, however, by implanting microchips into staff.
Personal identification microchip technology is on the rise and recently British companies have started tracking their employees in the same manner we chip our beloved pets.
Chip in your shoulder
UK microchip firm BioTeq has fitted 150 implants, usually the size of a grain of rice, inside staff at several large (and as yet unidentified) financial and engineering firms.
Swedish microchip developer Biohax said it has also met with UK legal and financial firms to implant the $150-a-chip devices into workers in order to “boost security and stop them accessing sensitive areas”.
Big Four accounting firms EY and PwC said they currently had no plans to microchip employees, and KPMG added it “would under no circumstances consider doing so”. Deloitte did not offer comment.
In recent months, US software firm Three Square Market has begun placing radio-frequency identification tags, which cost about $300, between the index fingers and thumbs of consenting staff.
Last year, the firm announced it had created an advanced microchip powered by human body heat, with GPS tracking capabilities and voice activation. The company was pitching at the healthcare market, and specifically individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Back in 2016, Three Square made waves by announcing a plan to implant ‘near-field communications’ or NFC technology inside around 100 consenting staff members.
The Wisconsin firm partnered with Biohax in the trial that allowed staff to open doors, access computers and purchase food from vending machines by swiping their arms.
Is ‘biochipping’ legal?
“This workplace Jedi mind trick may seem completely harmless at first glance, but unsurprisingly it’s caused an absolute furore in the States and around the world,” said Jane Crosby, employment and litigation partner at Hart Brown.
The experiments so far have been on consenting staff and there is no suggestion of the practice becoming mandatory any time soon. However, some US states including Arkansas, New Jersey and Nevada are so alarmed at the prospect they are drafting up laws to protect employees from forced chipping, or ‘biochipping’ as it is often referred.
“Is it legal to microchip your staff? Well, it’s not illegal as long as strict adherence to data protection and human rights laws is practised, it’s voluntary, and is fully consensual,” said Crosby. “Is it moral? That’s a whole other question, and one that will be argued about for years to come.”
No chips please, we’re British
Where Sweden has a reputation for technological experimentation, as evidenced in its push for an entirely cashless system, it seems likely Brits will take far longer to win around when it comes to the crossroads of tech and skin.
Swedish “implant parties”, where individuals turn up to have devices inserted enabling them to throw away gym cards, national IDs and travel tickets are unlikely to be replicated on the streets of Britain any time soon.
The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal last year was the high water mark of a privacy backlash involving several similar debacles that have put businesses on the back foot in regard to employee monitoring.
Compounded by the sweeping General Data Protection Regulation that was designed to return the control of personal data to individuals, it is a bad time to be caught unnecessarily intruding on privacy.
Firms would have to be clear on who is responsible for capturing, processing and maintaining the enormous amount of personal data that microchips are capable of producing about an individual’s movement, behaviours and health.
“The impact of microchipping humans opens up a huge can of ethical worms and raises some fundamental questions such as the impact on your personal privacy, the consequences of refusing to be microchipped by your employers, and what happens once you leave a position with the microchip still in you,” Crosby said.
UK trade unions have been quick to condemn the “erosion of dignity and right to privacy in the workplace” they say microchipping threatens.
Last year, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) put out a paper on employee surveillance and said the microchipping advances resemble Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where Big Brother watches every move people make.
“Trawling social media and tracking toilet breaks is bad enough, but the news on microchipping shows just how far some bosses are willing to go to control their workers,” the union said.
Chip and charge
For all the recent noise, biochipping is hardly new. Dr Kevin Warwick, a leading professor of cybernetics, had a silicon chip implanted into his arm as part of an experiment at Reading University in 1998 to study the control of intelligent buildings run by computers.
Although technically the world’s first cyborg, Dr Warwick did not attempt to wipe out the human race a la Arnold Schwarzenegger but instead suggested a more modest use case of his new-found powers: replacing a payment card.
These small steps, advanced by willing staff, are likely to lead to a softening of attitudes over time in the same way wearable tech has now become accepted, said Alex Viall, head of regulatory intelligence at people analytics firm Behavox.
“I think that what may seem a horrific concept can become acceptable when it is socialised properly and when put in place for the benefit and protection of both the collective and the individual,” Viall said.
Viall said the advantages for the bookkeeping profession, for example, are many, including convenience, better security, and easier payment tracking. Employees would no longer need to carry access cards, keys, or ID, and firms would save money replacing them, he said. The microchip’s single login would replace two-factor identification systems and provide much stronger security in expense or other payroll logging.
“So if chipping is going to save people time, give them better information about their current state of work-related health, and help to secure a larger bonus for the employees based on cybersecurity, why would you not be willing to do this?” Viall said.
Ultimately it comes down to the level of trust the individual has in the employer to govern and protect that personal data. “Transparency of process is always going to be key to make these approaches viable,” said Viall.