When we talk about a cashless society, we usually mean using contactless bank cards or smartphones to make everyday purchases. But what if you didn’t need to carry a device at all?

This is the tantalizing prospect leading some employees in Europe to be voluntarily “microchipped” with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag.

And now Americans are getting in on the act.

US tech company Three Square Market (32M) hosted a summer party with a difference at the start of August.

The River Fall, Wisconsin-based company hosted a “chip party” inviting its employees to voluntarily have their hands injected with an RFID chip the size of a grain of rice.

Image: 32M

The chip uses electromagnetic fields to identify electronically stored information. It is a form of near-field communications (NFC) which is the same as the technology used in contactless credit cards and mobile payments. A chip is implanted underneath the skin between the thumb and forefinger within seconds.

32M claims it is the first company in the US to offer implanted chip technology to employees.

Passport for everything

Speaking ahead of his company’s “chip party”, 32M CEO Todd Westby said he envisioned RFID implants being used for a range of activities and transactions in the workplace and beyond.

“We foresee the use of RFID technology to drive everything from making purchases in our office break room market, opening doors, use of copy machines, logging into our office computers, unlocking phones, sharing business cards, storing medical/health information, and used as payment at other RFID terminals,” said Westby.

“Eventually, this technology will become standardized allowing you to use this as your passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities, etc.”

32M, which operates workplace food vending systems called “micro markets”, already allows cashless use of their facilities via a smartphone app. The company stated that implanted chips were “the next evolution in payment systems”.

The technology being used by 32M was developed by Stockholm-based company Biohax Sweden.

Biohax’s RFID chip was first offered to workers at Swedish tech hub Epicenter in January 2015.

Since then the use of Biohax’s chip has expanded from simple office tasks such as opening doors and operating printers to payment for train journeys with one of Sweden’s largest rail operators.

Chip risks

For some, the ever-growing advantages of RFID implants come at too high a cost.

While data on RFID tags can be encrypted, Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, has warned that hackers could conceivably gain huge swathes of information from embedded microchips.

Fears over privacy and political freedom have led several US states – including 32M’s home state of Wisconsin – to pass laws banning the forced microchipping of humans against their will.

Concerns over human microchipping have existed in the US for well over a decade, with the Wisconsin anti-microchipping bill introduced in 2005.

Negative public sentiment forced US company PositiveID in 2010 to abandon its VeriMed project for a medical records microchip.

Fears over microchipping extend beyond privacy to the potential negative health effects of implanting an RFID tag – a device that transmits radio waves – into human tissue.

While at present little evidence exists as to the health effects of inserting microchips, the World Health Organization has classified Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.

Research into the effects of microchipping animals has found a small percentage suffer from tumours in the area where the microchip was inserted.