The idea that microchipping employees should be welcomed by UK companies after the first American firm recently began offering its workers implants is both outrageous and bizarre, says Henley Business School’s Professor Nada Kakabadse.
New technologies can creep up on us. They attract attention at the time they’re announced and then go to ground as those we find no use for are discarded.
Others mutate, evolve, find new applications, or combine with other technologies. Potential uses proliferate as the technology gradually colonises its opportunity space, in a process of dissemination, development, and adoption that unfolds below the threshold of public awareness.
The announcement that Three Square Market, a Wisconsin, US, firm has offered to implant tiny identification devices in all of its workers’ hands for free is a perfect example of this insidious creep at work.
The scheme is reported to be optional, but bosses expect over 50 members of staff to participate. The £230 chips, which work through near-field communications, will allow staff to open doors, log into computers, use the photocopier and pay for food.
Two decades ago Mark Weiser wrote in Scientific American that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear.” He referred to technologies that “weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
They can vanish because, like the mobile phone, they become all too familiar and are also so small or unobtrusive that they are practically invisible.
RFID tag technology is an example of the latter. Radio frequency codings were first used for ‘identification of friend or foe’ in World War II. The first RFID tags later emerged in the 1950s within the nuclear industry to identify and track radioactive material.
Miniaturisation opened up yet more applications. In the 1990s RFID tags were attached to materials and products to improve stock control and supply chain management.
These devices have since crept into libraries for tracking and sorting books, implanted in pets and other livestock and, following a pioneering deployment in Oklahoma in 1991, have become commonplace in toll road payment systems throughout the US.
In 1998, Kevin Warwick, then Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, implanted himself with an RFID tag for an experiment. This was an important milestone. Tags attached to, or embedded in inanimate objects used or carried by humans, such as credit cards and other products, raised few ethical or philosophical issues.
However, when technology pierces the skin and invades the human body, it enters a domain awash with ethical, moral, political and philosophical controversy.
Professor Warwick, now Deputy Vice Chancellor at Coventry University, reportedly responded to the latest use of RFID technology, by saying:
“I would love to see this technology used as an optional passport ID. It might help reduce the queues at passport control and easily identify people who are not terrorists.
“In companies it clearly has a role to play as a security device, allowing access only to certain people. It could also be useful to assist with the aged living at home for longer - both in terms of security and to identify problems - much better than a wrist band which can fall off.
“Why shouldn't we go forward with this technology in the UK? After all, this is where it was pioneered. But for me a key point is that it should be a choice for each individual.”
What is perhaps missing from this discourse are terms such as ‘human branding’ which naturally evokes an Orwellian vision of mind and body control. RFID tag opponents’ concerns over invasion of privacy, covert surveillance and infringements of civil liberties are in danger of being dismissed as the ravings of conspiracy theorists.
In 2004 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an RFID implant, VeriChip, about the size of a grain of rice, for medical purposes. Nightclubs in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Barcelona in Spain already offer implants to customers for entry and payment purposes. Some claim the Obamacare health act makes subdermal RFID implants mandatory for all US citizens.
RFID technologies can promise enormous benefits, in areas ranging from security and health monitoring, to business efficiency. But there is a dark side to the technology; a potential for abuse.
For those with no love of individual freedom and self-determination it opens up seductive new vistas for control, manipulation and oppression.
To get an idea of how people feel about subdermal tags and provide a starting point for a much-needed debate about their use we have spoken to people representing four groups; those who have implants; those contemplating implants for their children for safety or security reasons; policy advisors who have considered recommending implants to clients; and opinion leaders.
The first two groups (implanted or contemplating implants) had not considered ethical issues. Some regretted this. They felt they had made errors of judgement they could have avoided if the issues had been explained. All participants felt insufficient information on health and ethical issues was provided to those contemplating RFID implants. Some participants strongly advocated more pilot testing before further adoption. Others were worried about what they felt was the poorly-controlled, opaque nature of the manufacture of tag implants.
All participants felt that the widespread use of RFID implants was inevitable, but there was a general unease about what they saw as the covert, subtly coercive manner in which implant technology was being introduced by governments and big business.
The study suggests that a number of specific questions need to be answered in each case:
- Can privacy and security be guaranteed?
- Who owns the implanted microchip?
- Are the benefits for the implanted individual proportionate to the rights foregone?
- Who has access to the information transmitted?
- Is consent to the implant fully informed?
- Who guarantees the individual’s rights against violation?
- How medically safe and technically secure is the technology?
The wider use of RFID implants in humans may be inevitable, but it should not go unchallenged. A full debate is needed about ethical and health issues, to ensure deployment of implants complies with Article 3 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts the right to ‘life, liberty, and security of person.’