Want to make international technology headlines? Just tell everyone you'll be the first U.S. company to implant chips into your employees' hands.
That's what Wisconsin company Three Square Market (aka 32M) did last month – and on Tuesday they held a "chip party" at their River Falls headquarters, hosting media members from across the world to show off the new voluntary tech.
Check out our video to see what getting it implanted looks like. (Spoiler: It's made everybody who watched it so far wince).
But we had a lot of questions about how exactly it works, what it can and can't do, and how the data is being used. So we got some answers.
What's the chip made out of?
The chip is about the size of a grain of rice (maybe even slightly bigger, to be honest). Inside is a an RFID reader – that's Radio Frequency Identification –with a small antenna.
RFID technology isn't in itself uncommon. It's how most pay-with-your-phone apps work, and some workplaces use it for door access (usually in a card though, not someone's hand). And the chip was approved by the FDA back in 2004.
The implant is encased in an acrylic covering, 32M CEO Todd Westby said. It's basically impossible to break – they even tried smashing it with a hammer.
Once it's implanted, it sits directly under your skin, Westby said. The chip's lifespan is probably about 10 years, he said, though some biohackers have reportedly gotten to 15 years.
If someone leaves the company they can keep the chip in or take it out – up to them. It can be popped out like a splinter usually.
What can the implant do right now?
The early uses here are pretty simple.
Log on to 32M work computers, get access to the building by scanning it at the door reader, or do self-checkout from micro markets – which is what 32M's business is.
They can also program it to pull up your driver's license and/or medical information when you scan it with a phone.
32M developed this proprietary chip in partnership with Biohax, which created the original version.
It's got 956 Kilobytes of memory, "so you can pretty much write to it whatever you like" as long as it fits, Westby said.
It is not a GPS device
One of the immediate reactions we saw was some variation of, "They're going to track where employees go."
"This device? No. It's not a GPS tracking device," Westby said. "It's strictly an RFID device that you have to hold up to a proximity reader for the data to be read."
How the data is stored
There are of course questions about data and safety.
It's a closed application right now, meaning to program the chip, you need to use 32M's in-house software. And it's got 256-bit encryption, "so you can't just hold anybody's phone up to it and log into this particular chip," Westby said.
Patrick McMullan, the company's COO, lays it out well in a LinkedIn blog post, writing: "In simple terms, it only emits information to a reader that asks the exact question for which it has the answer to. It is encrypted with the highest level of security."
Your information isn't just stored on the chip. Instead the chip has a unique serial number – and data (such as your credit card info) is tied to the chip's unique serial number.
What data is being collected and monitored?
Right now what they're mainly interested in are the sales transactions at the micro markets – what's being bought, how much is being bought, and when, Westby said.
32M is not currently analyzing which chips – or, to take it another step, which people – are doing the purchasing, Westby said. That door was left open though.
McMullan stressed however they're interested in being "responsible" with this new technology and all of the data, especially considering how strong some of the opinions about it have been.
They also promised not to sell user data that's gathered from the chip technology.
What's coming in the future?
32M wants to keep expanding the memory, doubling or even tripling the capacity.
While it can't do GPS right now, future models might include tracking – and people have asked for it.
That includes parents wanting to GPS chip their kids, and representatives from foreign countries that said they're interested in the technology to deter kidnapping.
We also asked if someone could program their RFID implant to work with Apple Pay or Samsung Pay in the future.
Said Westby: "Yeah, but it might be called Three Square Pay. ... We are writing our own technology for this to be used as payment."
They could even have a demo in the coming weeks.
Westby and McMullan also mentioned 32M has gotten interest from two major hospitals, a U.S. embassy security firm, LinkedIn, universities, a large bank, and hundreds of others.