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This Wisconsin 'Chip Party' Doesn't Come With Cheese Dip


Now, it's time for our regular segment, Words You'll Hear, where we try to understand a new story by digging into a key word or phrase. Our phrase this week - chip party. And, no, not the kind of chip you eat. Fifty employees at a vending machine company in Wisconsin have volunteered to have microchips implanted into their hands. The chip will allow them to open doors at work, to log on to their computers, buy snacks in the break room - all with the swipe of a hand. On August 1, this company - Three Square Market - will host a chip party at its headquarters, and they will be inserting these chips into their employees' hands using a syringe. So is this the future and should it be? For some insight into the ethics of all this, we are joined by Michael Zimmer. He's a professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he directs their Center for Information Policy Research. Michael, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL ZIMMER: Great. Thanks for having me on the show.

KING: Michael, first and foremost, we should say this is entirely voluntary.

ZIMMER: It's as voluntary as it is when your boss says we're all going to get chips but you don't really have to. So, you know, part of me is worried already that, you know, how many people feel comfortable saying no to this? But it's true. It is voluntary. And, in fact, Wisconsin state law requires that it has to be a voluntary thing. They can't force everyone to do it.

KING: Michael, how does this technology work?

ZIMMER: The type of device they're using here is called a passive RFID chip, and it only emits a signal when it's scanned by a reader. So this is like if you've had a card to help you access a room in your office, and then you press that card against a scanner, you get a green light and you can unlock the door. It's that same kind of technology, but instead of in a card, it's going to be inside your body.

KING: The vice president of the company has said the chip needs to be within 6 inches of the building to work, so you literally need to be on the premises. Why then is everyone so concerned that this might be used as a tracking device?

ZIMMER: Well, there's a couple of reasons. One is we never know how the technology might evolve. We have this problem that we call function creep, and this happens a lot with technologies that are developed and launched for one purpose and then, suddenly, shift and be used for something else. Things like red light cameras, where we're trying to help make sure people are running red lights, and that's a great safety reason to have cameras on the roads. But, certainly, those start being used to just track where cars are.

KING: Function creep is a fancy way of saying slippery slope.

ZIMMER: Exactly.

KING: I wonder, though, you know, we live in a post-Edward Snowden world, right? We know that our data isn't really private. We know that we're being tracked, and there's an argument that this kind of tracking makes our lives much easier. Right? I Google shoes, and my phone knows that I need a new pair of shoes, and it points me to a pair that I like that are on sale that are on Amazon. That feels, to a lot of people, especially a lot of younger people, like progress, like it's the 21st century. Do you think maybe we are being a little bit hysterical here?

ZIMMER: Well, we're not being hysterical. We're just trying to be cautious. And I think this tradeoff between convenience and privacy is something we do all the time. Like you said, I wear a Fitbit, and I track what I do and the kind of activities I have, and I see a value in having that data being collected. But again, this is more a question about, what is the future implications of having some kind of device embedded in my body that could potentially be scanned and tracked?

KING: You're in Wisconsin. Are you going to go to the chip party?

ZIMMER: I am not going to go to the chip party. It's a cute idea. And, you know, some of us are worried that this is just one big PR campaign for this company and the kinds of things that they're doing. But, hopefully, my employer's not going to have a chip party anytime soon.

KING: All right (laughter). That's Michael Zimmer. He's a professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

ZIMMER: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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