Who Is Watching Over Your Privacy?

E-mail Tom Kevan

As sensing technology advances and its use proliferates, the potential for the invasion of individuals' privacy grows. Who then is responsible for guarding against the misuse of new sensory developments?

A Brave New Sensor-Rich World
This month, the Institute for the Future and IEEE Spectrum magazine released the results of a survey of the world's leading technology professionals considering the impact of science and technology in the next 50 years. In an article appearing in the September issue of Spectrum commenting on the survey's results, the authors observed, "As computing and processing move off the desktop into everyday things and sensor networks become widespread, every object, every movement, and every interaction online become pieces of data to be endlessly communicated, stored, mined, and analyzed on countless levels." This scenario sets the scene for an Orwellian world in which privacy is an anachronism.

If you think I'm overreacting, consider two recent developments. This month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.7 million contract to design a remote-controlled nano air vehicle (NAV) that will collect military intelligence indoors and outdoors on the urban battlefield. The NAV will be similar in size and shape to a maple tree seed and will house imaging sensors. The air vehicle will measure 1.5 inches in length, weigh no more than 0.07 ounces, and be able to transport its sensor payload nearly a mile.

In another development, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts awarded a $400,000 grant to the Bae Institute to research the viability of the photon thrusters and tethers to control formations of spacecraft.

If successful, this research could be the prelude to micro, nano, and pico spacecraft with magnitudes better sensor capability for both earth-based observation and outward-looking space observation applications. Uses of this technology are said to include precise geophysical monitoring, such as environmental monitoring, mapping, imaging, surveillance, and astronomy. Spacecraft clusters in geosynchronous orbit could be able to resolve geophysical detail to within 10 cm while providing real-time data streaming.

Who's Responsible?
While these technologies are far from mature, they provide a glimpse of our future capabilities. So at what point do we become concerned about guarding against the misuse of technology developed to provide new vistas for scientists and engineers to observe physical phenomena? Do we rely on others to stand guard over our rights?

Ken Goldberg—an IEEE Fellow who participated in the survey and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley—said, "Some engineers might think that it's up to the politicians and lawyers to work out the privacy challenges. But unless we see this from the beginning as an important technology problem to solve, we'll wake up with tons of gadgets around us and nowhere to hide."

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