Human microchipping bills seek to rein in practice

At least 11 states have passed laws restricting it.
FILE – In this Aug. 1, 2017, file photo, a microchip is shown compared with a dime at Three Square Market in River Falls, Wis., where the company held a ‘chip party’ for employees who volunteer to have the microchip embedded in their hand. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen, File)

What sounds like something out of a sci-fi thriller — microchips being implanted in humans — is already happening in countries such as Sweden and Germany. State lawmakers in the U.S. are not waiting to see how the movie ends.

At least 11 states have passed laws restricting human microchipping. That includes Oklahoma, where for the past two years Sen. Nathan Dahm (R) has introduced legislation to expand upon his state’s existing law.

“My focus and priority is on protecting individual rights,” Dahm said in an interview.

Bills to bar employer-forced microchipping were also introduced this year in Alabama and Wyoming.

Of particular concern to legislators is the potential for employers to someday require their workers to get microchipped. In 2017, a Wisconsin company drew national attention when it held a “chip party” where employees voluntarily received implants so that they could do things like unlock doors and buy items from the break room vending machine with the wave of a hand. 

Existing Oklahoma law prohibits any individual, government entity or private employer from requiring someone to be microchipped or otherwise permanently marked. Dahm’s bill would go further and bar employers from coercing employees into being microchipped or asking on an application if a potential employee is willing to have one implanted.

Dahm said he was inspired to introduce his bill after meeting an Arkansas lawmaker who had passed a similar law in response to hearing about people in Sweden voluntarily getting microchipped.

“When it comes to things like this being implanted into your body … I believe that government does have a responsibility to protect the individual from those violations of their body, of bodily autonomy,” said Dahm, whose Twitter bio identifies him as “Oklahoma’s most conservative State Senator.” He sat down for an interview with Jon Stewart that went viral earlier this month.

Dahm compared the issue to vaccine mandates. But state-level concerns about human microchipping pre-date the Covid-19 pandemic by nearly two decades — ever since the FDA approved the use of a medical records microchip.

The issue also cuts across the standard blue and red state divide. CaliforniaNorth Dakota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin were early adopters of laws prohibiting forced microchipping. Indiana, Missouri, Montana  and Nevada are among the states that followed suit.

In 2021, human microchipping bills were introduced in at least seven states, according to the most recent tracking available from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The scramble by states to get ahead of microchip technology contrasts with the game of catch up policy makers often play when trying to regulate technological advances, such as current efforts to place limits on social media algorithms.

“I believe that as technology develops, we need to create legislation … before it’s becoming a problem,” Wyoming Rep. Daniel Singh (R) told Cowboy State Daily in January.

Singh was a House cosponsor of the Wyoming bill this year, which originated in the Senate and cleared that chamber but died in the House. The Oklahoma measure has also stalled. The Alabama bill, sponsored by Rep. Prince Chestnut (D), advanced out of the Judiciary Committee last week.

“Your right to work should not result in your employer being able to trace your steps and place you under a constant state of 24-hour-a-day, seven-day a week surveillance,” Chestnut told Alabama Daily News.

Microchipping is most often associated with livestock or pets. In the case of a lost-and-found pet, the owner’s information contained on the chip can be accessed with a hand-held scanner. In animals, the microchip is typically placed between the shoulder blades. In humans, the grain-of-rice-sized device is often injected into the tissue between the thumb and forefinger.

As of 2018, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people worldwide had been chipped. In Sweden, people use them to store medical information, access gyms and ride trains, according to NPR. In some cases, the chips allow users to make contactless payments.

Despite that potential convenience, the invasive nature of human microchipping has triggered concerns about data protection, cybersecurity, human rights, health side effects and even spawned references to the “mark of the beast.” Microchips were also at the center of a 2020 conspiracy theory involving Covid-19 vaccines and the Gates Foundation.

“The privacy concerns around this are that you are treating the human body as a kind of human barcode,” said Zhanna Malekos Smith, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has researched and written about human microchipping.

Malekos Smith said it was “commendable” that states are thinking about the implications of the technology. She highlighted Indiana’s 2021 law — the most recent to pass — as “forward leaning” because it included a nondiscrimination provision meant to protect employees who decline a microchip from retaliation.

But even as states proactively legislate against forced microchipping, there are indications the technology could have plenty of volunteer takers once it is more available. Malekos Smith said a 2021 survey of UK consumers found more than half of respondents were open to having a microchip placed in their hand if it would allow them to purchase items without cash or a credit card.

“It’s a difficult dance here — how do you protect the flame of technological innovation, but at the same time how are you guarding against misapplication and abuse,” Malekos Smith said.

Besides convenience, backers of the technology have touted its potential to make it easier for people with disabilities to open doors or for first responders to quickly look up a person’s medical history. 

Dahm, the Oklahoma senator, said he has heard ideas for how the technology could be deployed, including as an alternative to “dog tags” to identify members of the military. But speaking via Zoom with a Gadsden flag over his shoulder, he remained skeptical.

“I know those are scenarios that are offered,” Dahm said. “I don’t know that I believe the benefits outweigh the potential risk or harm.”