Patrick

"Don’t be afraid to put a sensor in your hand to lead a better life," said Patrick McMullan, COO of the tech company Three Square Market, at a Wisconsin Tech Council luncheon on Tuesday.

Photo by ERIK LORENZSONN

Patrick McMullan said he knows how it sounds when he tells people his company implants microchips in its employees’ hands.

“For some of you, that sounds scary. And I get it,” said the chief operations officer of the River Falls-based tech company Three Square Market during a presentation he gave on Madison’s south side on Wednesday.

But McMullan asserted that the business’s decision to pay for workers to get tiny capsule-like chips inserted into the webbing between their thumb and forefinger, and to begin offering “microchipping solutions” as part of its business, was a forward-thinking move.

“Ultimately, when I talked about why did our employees do it, it's because they’re innovators,” he said. “Why not us? Somebody’s going to do it.”

Three Square Market, a company that has historically specialized in making software for high-tech cafeteria kiosks, announced in July of last year that it would become the first U.S. company to implant workers with radio-frequency identification microchips. The chip would allow workers, all of whom voluntarily signed up for the procedure, to wave their hand in front of a sensor to unlock the doors of the company’s building, to buy food from the cafeteria, and to unlock their laptops.

The move was met with intense media coverage and scrutiny from those concerned about workers’ privacy and medical safety. Multiple outlets described the move as “dystopian.”

Three Square Market has stressed that the chips aren’t GPS-compatible and cannot track employees. McMullan said that the chips were more secure than highly connected devices like smartphones.

The company held a “microchipping party” for the occasion, where a local body piercer helped inject the small devices into dozens of workers’ hands with a large syringe. McMullan said that the company received death threats because of the move. On the day of the party, he said, they planned ahead for the possibility of protests blocking access roads to the company’s headquarters (those protests didn’t end up happening, he said).

McMullan stressed that the decision was not a PR stunt.

“Yes, we knew we’d be taking a chance. Yes, we knew this would bring us lots of exposure,” said McMullan. “But what we could do would change the world.”

McMullan said about 95 percent of Three Square market employees have the non-GPS enabled chips implanted in their hands. Because workers use the chip to gain access to buildings and to their computers, the chips afford the company unprecedented levels of security, he said.

Recently, Three Square Market has begun offering microchip “solutions” as part of its business model. McMullan said the company is poised to deploy the chips, either in the form of wristbands or as implants, to places like hospitals, prisons, restaurants, and perhaps even schools. He referred to the spread of the technology as “the internet of people.”

McMullan gave examples of the kinds of contexts the chips would work in, such as monitoring patients’ heart rates at hospitals, or taking attendance in classrooms by having children “check in” with a scanner.

He also shared an example of jail employees responsible for serving food to inmates, where chips could ensure hygiene standards are met by staff.

“If (employees) haven’t washed their hands, they can’t unlock the door. If you went to a restaurant, wouldn’t you have a little more piece of mind if they were doing that?” he said.

The Wisconsin Technology Council sponsored the talk, which happened at the Sheraton Hotel on John Nolen Drive.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.