It’s not often trade unions and employers are equally worried about an issue threatening workers’ rights. But the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC), and the main body that represents British businesses, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), have both voiced concerns about the budding practice of implanting employees with microchips.
Initially, the chips are being used in place of ID cards as a way of opening secure doors. But there’s good reason to think the use of implants could expand to more sinister purposes, raising serious concerns over issues related to human dignity, ethics and health.
Businesses often do need some way to monitor employees to be sure they are completing their work and to calculate pay. In recent years, we’ve seen more extreme monitoring methods that push the boundaries of personal privacy: surveillance of employees’ emails, wearable tracking technology, and radio tags on factory products to track assembly line efficiency. But implanting microchips in employees creates a new level of monitoring because workers can’t easily remove them or turn them off.
Most companies using these chips present them in a fairly innocuous way. But too much monitoring can make employees feel spied on, damaging their productivity, creativity, motivation and personal wellbeing.
What’s more, employers’ motivations for introducing chip implants are unlikely to be entirely altruistic. There is nothing to stop them from using the technology to track employees’ whereabouts or activities outside work.
The chips can be reprogrammed while inside the body, modifying their use and purpose from what might have been agreed. And, the ability to track an employee’s location without their knowledge raises serious ethical concerns.
Even if implants are technically voluntary, it’s not hard to imagine situations where employees might feel pressured to accept the chips or warned of unfavourable consequences if they don’t agree.
The good news is that in many developed countries, companies are expected to afford employees some level of privacy. In the EU, new data protection legislation (GDPR) means employers are expected to conduct privacy impact assessments when they engage in processes that represent a high risk to the rights of data subjects.
This means that due to the concerns about the risks to privacy posed by chip implants any attempt to introduce them on a larger scale would likely face strong legal challenges.