JOHN BRUMMETT: A chip in the old block

It begins with an irresistible text. "Have you seen this?"

Attached is a copy of a bill, House Bill 1177, filed just that afternoon by state Rep. Stephen Meeks of Greenbrier, a noted right-winger.

The measure seems by a quick scan to be setting up a process by which employers could insert informational microchips inside their employees.

In minutes social media is atwitter. People are aghast that the right-wing nanny state is angling to put its digital brand inside all of us.

You know the routine. You know the standard words and tone of the modern alarm and lamentation.

It goes as follows: What is the world coming to? Where does this end? It's Orwellian. It's Big Brother.

Soon Meeks makes his own post on social media to say his bill is "pro-active." He explains that the bill is designed to protect employees from mandatory microchipping as has sprung up among Swedish workers and in a kiosk food company based in Wisconsin.

Indeed, reading his bill carefully, rather than scanning it, reveals that its thrust is forbidding an employer from requiring an employee to accede to the chipping.

It also stipulates that, if an employee accedes, the employer must pay for the procedure, which entails anesthesia and a shallow invasion.

I speak with the authority of one whose dogs were microchipped, without complaint. One of them, a rescued beagle, had a brief early history of escape artisanry.

Then explanatory links begin to appear. Some Swedes, liberal socialist Democrats though they might be, seem not to mind getting a rice kernel-sized microchip put under the skin of their thumb or hand or wrist or triceps region containing data to replace their employee ID card.

In some cases, the insertion allows them to swipe their hand or wrist or arm across a vending machine and get a soft drink that is charged to their accounts.

There is talk in Sweden of putting credit card or debit card data on these inserted microchips so that folks merely would swipe their hand or wrist past a scanner to complete a purchase.

There indeed seems less chance of losing your hand than losing your plastic card.

It turns out that the federal Food and Drug Administration approved human insertion of microchips in 2004 and that five states have laws against mandatory employer chipping.

Meeks' bill grows steadily less offensive and outrageous as information is steadily learned about its issue. Facts work like that.

He says he got interested through his work as co-chairman of the Joint Advanced Communications and Information Technology Committee, and from reading technology publications. He says these kinds of technological advances are coming fast and that it makes sense to him to have practical laws in place.

Maybe he isn't Big Brother after all.

So, to update: Last week his bill sailed out of the House 84-4. It is being held at the moment in the Senate Public Health Welfare and Labor Committee because Meeks has agreed to a couple of amendments. One would say outrightly that an employer couldn't fire an employee for declining the chipping. The other would add sponsors who want to hop on his suddenly popular employer-protecting train.

I thought I'd peeled back all the misconceptions, but, in speaking with Meeks on Tuesday, I remarked that I still had qualms about employees, even by their choice, submitting to letting their employers track them at all times.

"It's not a GPS," Meeks snapped. "It can only scan this close," he said, grabbing my phone and running it over his wrist.

I was confused by my dog-owner experience. For a while, the former escape artist, name of Sophie, carried both the microchip and a GPS collar. But the GPS collar got mangled in a friendly backyard scrape with her older brother Roscoe.

Some people have suggested conceivable medical uses. An Alzheimer's or dementia patient, unable to provide personal information, could be microchipped with identifying data and personal medical records. For that matter, any of us could be chipped for medical records in the event of a medical emergency away from home.

In those cases, the scan would reveal a number that could be punched in as a code on an encrypted Internet site to access the records.

What I figure is that someone will run across this column in 25 years--on a cloud, I suspect, by snapping his finger to activate his thumb chip--and guffaw at its primitive naivete.

Or make that five years.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jb[email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 01/31/2019