Will Sensors Outnumber Insects?

E-mail Melanie Martella

The number and type of sensors in our lives is increasing, whether it's through our increasingly sophisticated cars or the sensors scattered through our environment. While I'm not sure the number of sensors will, in fact, outpace the insect population, one prediction says there will be more than a million sensors per person in the U.K. by 2057. With all that valuable data available, I have one thing to say to you—Here Be Dragons.

The U.K. may be a special case as far as sensor vs. population density goes, since it is (I believe) the most CCTV-heavy of western nations with a camera for each fourteen people (according to a 2002 study). Professor Martin Sadler, director of Trusted Systems at Hewlett Packard, was interviewed for the BBC News article "Sensor rise powers life recorders" and it is he who predicts 1 million sensors per U.K. inhabitant.

As Sadler says, "we imagine by 2057 our motorways, rivers and coastal defences, farms, businesses, homes and neighbourhoods and bodies will all be highly instrumented." So true. Those of you reading this probably have the clearest idea of the immense strides in sensor technology and particularly in sensor networking that are happening now.

Double-Edged Swords
The monitoring systems that are being created now, to understand the oceans, create greater situational awareness during natural disasters, and make our buildings more efficient and safer all fall under the "Good" heading. Inevitably, however, someone somewhere is going to use some of this data for nefarious purposes. It's one of those defining human characteristics.

Several people, including Sadler, have pointed out that we need to think hard about how these technologies can be misused before those unwelcome scenarios occur. Just because we can doesn't mean that we should, if you see what I mean. For instance, who owns the data collected? The individual being monitored or just the entity collecting the data? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's article "Sensors and insensibility," highlights just such a problem. The state of Georgia, in order to get government funding for solar-powered traffic sensors, signed up with a company called Traffic.com. It was, in fact, required to sign up with Traffic.com to get the money. Traffic.com then provided the sensors for free and the Georgia DOT looked forward to getting its hands on all that lovely traffic data. Unfortunately for them, that was not part of the deal. To quote from the article, "Under the deal, however, data collected from the sensors won't be available to the public or even to the state DOT. Traffic.com intends to sell the most detailed bits of information collected by its road sensors to travelers who buy its on-board navigational system, which displays real-time traffic updates about wrecks and stalls. And as DOT officials belatedly learned, the company's deal also gives it the right to charge the state agency for the most pertinent and valuable traffic information gleaned from its road sensors."

Recent kerfuffles over Google's use of car-mounted cameras to provide street-level views to supplement its map service are leading to discussions of what constitutes "public" and what are reasonable expectations of privacy in our modern, monitored world.

Our history is full of new technologies being misapplied and ethics discussions occurring only in reaction to abuses of same. Wouldn't it be nice to buck that particular trend?

Care to comment? Please scroll down to the bottom of the page and let me know what you think.

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