From virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to digital assistants and virtual coaches, numerous innovative technologies have already made waves across the learning and development (L&D) field as we move toward the future of work. One emerging trend, however, raises questions about what the future means for data security, privacy and personal boundaries: implanting microchips into employees’ skin.

What Is a Microchip?

A microchip, commonly referred to as a chip, is a radio frequency identification device (RFID) about the size of a grain of rice. When implanted, employees can unlock doors, log into their computers and even purchase snacks from the vending machine down the hall — with just a wave of the hand.

Some organizations have started giving employees the option to be chipped, including Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based technology company, that made national headlines after microchipping nearly 100 employees in 2017, and Epicenter, a Swedish start-up that has microchipped an estimated 150 employees since 2015. BioTeq, a Swedish firm that implants microchips into both individuals and other organizations’ employees, fitted 150 microchips in the U.K. as of 2018.

While still emerging in the enterprise market, RFID technology isn’t anything new: People have long used microchips for everything from identifying lost pets to tracking medical information. Let’s consider the pros and cons of microchipping employees and how training can address privacy concerns for an ethical chipping process.

Business Benefits of the Microchip

The primary purpose of RFID implants is unique identification, says Joel Beasley, chief executive officer and founder of and host of the “Modern CTO” podcast. “We put a chip into us and we scan it, and the system can pick up on who we are.” For this reason, Beasley says microchips most benefit industries that require frequent authentication.

A Device Plus article explains, “A multi-factor authentication approach using a PIN code and a security microchip is one way to stay a step ahead of hackers.” Although “determined hackers” may still decide to use a microchip implant to attack a secure facility in person, Beasley says this scenario is unlikely, as the risk of being caught is much higher.

Microchips can also reduce health care costs for employers by tracking factors such as sleep duration, blood pressure and activity levels. With this information, microchips can make recommendations on how employees can improve their health, says Dan Lohrmann, chief security officer and chief strategist for Security Mentor, Inc., and author of “Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web.” While microchips will likely yield more business benefits as they evolve, he adds, in terms of reducing health care costs, the benefits are already in full swing.

Managing Privacy Concerns

There’s a “light side and a dark side” to microchipping employees, Lohrmann says. Even if there are privacy protections and a clear policy in place, in rare cases, hacking can still happen. There’s also no way for employees to know when their microchip has been scanned, Beasley says. “You could walk through a scanner and not even know you’re walking through [it].”

According to a report published in I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, both government and private-sector organizations must be aware of the fact that RFID chips have the potential to leak private information, without a person’s consent, to anyone with an RFID reader. Learning leaders should make this information clear in training materials to ensure employees understand of the potential risks of microchipping. To keep data protection top of mind, Lohrmann says, “The steps you would take are certainly the same steps you would take from a cybersecurity perspective: … Have a clear privacy policy, [and] communicate clearly to the employees what will and will not be done with their data.”

Currently, organizations cannot require employees to be microchipped; they can simply offer it as a possibility if their staff have a use for it, says Steven Northam, founder and CEO of BioTeq. However, some fear that what is voluntary now will become mandatory in the future. To ease these concerns, organizations must “clearly communicate and build trust,” Lohrmann says.

To remain transparent, learning leaders should provide training on what microchips are and, more importantly, how the organization plans to use them. They should also educate employees on the implantation procedure, which Beasley says typically involves implanting a microchip in a needle and then injecting it into the skin intravenously. The entire process takes around 20 minutes and should occur in a sterile environment, which Northam says is critical when performing any procedure that breaks the skin.

Some employees may want to remove their microchip after deciding to leave their organization. Lohrmann says that although the chip is “fairly easy” to remove, it still requires someone to cut it out of the hand. “No doubt, in the future, there may be easier ways to remove chips,” he adds.

Organizations should also be aware that when chipped employees leave, they can “bring data with them,” Lohrmann adds. If microchips become interchangeable in the future, and employees can clear their chip when they switch employers, it may not be an issue. However, as of now, “There are certainly major privacy and security concerns, especially if sensitive data is stored” on the chip.

By communicating potential security risks, outlining the implantation procedure and educating employees on how the organization plans to use their implanted microchips, learning leaders can do their part in ensuring an ethical microchipping process.

Future Predictions

When implanted in humans, microchips’ capabilities are still largely unexplored. Beasley, who has two RFID chips (one to pick up his daughter from day care and one to enter his office building), predicts they will be able to “consolidate” in the future. In other words, he explains, people will have a personal chip that they can register at multiple places, such as their office building, child’s day care, gym or anywhere else they regularly visit that requires unique identification. “It will just be that one chip registered everywhere … that’s the advancement of it, I think,” Beasley says.

Lohrmann also sees microchips evolving in the future, predicting that they will become adaptable with other innovative technologies, such as the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).

As RFID technology advances, and more organizations give employees the option to be chipped, learning leaders should be prepared to address privacy concerns through open communication and training on both the “light side” and “dark side” of microchipping so that organizations, and employees, can determine if the chip is for them.