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Nanotechnology and Surveillance

A Foresight Nanotech Institute Policy Issues Brief

by Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson

Nanotechnology will eventually enable supercomputing on a very small scale, detection of minute amounts of substances, rapid analysis of genomes, and implantation of microchips into humans. These technologies will be highly beneficial in promoting economic progress, health, and environmental preservation. But these technologies may also come with a darker side: they can open new opportunities for governments, individuals, and private interests to violate privacy. How nanotechnology will affect our privacy, and what actions governments should take, are important issues that need to be resolved before nano-surveillance becomes ubiquitous and its control difficult. Without careful consideration, thought, and possibly new policy action, "Big Brother" may end up being very, very small.

Nanotechnologies can assist surveillance in many ways. An obvious tool for nanotechnological surveillance is nano-sensors. These sensors, already under development, can detect minute amounts of chemicals in the air. For example, Owlstone Nanotech, a New York-based company, is expected to produce dime-sized wireless sensors that can detect toxins and explosive materials in the air by 2007.1 It should not be long until nano-sensors are much smaller. Another possible nano-surveillance innovation might be extremely small cameras. Researchers at Hiroshima University and Nippon Hoso Kyokai have reportedly already been able to find a silicon nanocrystal film that is photoconductive, which is the first step in creating highly miniaturized cameras.2 Human implanted microchips may also become a tool of surveillance, since they could be used to track an indivdual’s location and possibly what that person consumed (drugs, junk food).3

Advanced surveillance does have some positive applications. With nano-sensors like the ones mentioned above, it would be very difficult — if not impossible — to sneak a bomb into a highly secured place such as an airport. If such sensing nanotechnologies were ubiquitous, producing a bomb — or a nanoweapon — undetected would be very difficult or impossible. Human-implanted chips have been proposed to track the location of Alzheimer’s patients.

However, there exists a substantial threat to civil liberties if such technologies are taken too far. For example, the same nano-sensors that could "keep us safe" could also be used to track eating habits, smoking, drug use, — any activity that leaves a chemical trace. More ominously, it would likely be possible to read DNA, enabling detailed tracking of individuals.

Of course, nobody would advocate implementing such draconian surveillance, at first. However, security concerns, especially if the "war on terror" continues into the foreseeable future, may prompt the widespread use of nano-sensors. Only after such technology is already ubiquitous does it become politically feasible to suggest that it be used to keep tabs on activities such as illegal drug use.

Privacy violations will not only come from governments. Nanotechnologies could enable other actors, including parents and corporations, to observe where one has been and what one is consuming. Insurance, for example, could use such information to more accurately calculate risk. These applications are not necessarily bad; arguably, concerned parents should be able to know where their toddlers are, corporations could use tracking information to better develop and market products, and with better risk calculations, insurance companies could charge fairer rates. However, it does raise serious questions about how much surveillance by certain actors is too much.

The current legal setting may already protect against some privacy violations. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court case Kyllo vs. United States found that it was illegal for the police to use heat sensing technology on Kyllo’s house to determine whether or not she was using heat lamps to grow marijuana without a warrant.4 The Court decided that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure also prohibits the government from using "a device that is not in general public use… to explore details of a private home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion".5 The precedent in Kyllo could easily and clearly be extended to nanotechnology surveillance.6 However, as the recent bout over the administration’s phone-tapping program shows, the letter of the law and its practice sometimes drastically differ, and as long as the surveillance technology exists, governments may be prone to use it.

One approach to limiting governmental abuse of surveillance data has been termed the "Transparent Society," after a book by David Brin proposing that the safest pathway forward is to ensure widespread sharing of surveillance data collected by government. According to this theory, abuses would then become much more visible to the citizenry, with privacy being handled through social conventions.7

Issues on nanotechnology surveillance must be worked out sooner rather than later. If policymakers and citizens begin to debate the issue when nano-sensing technology is already in widespread use, it may be too late to prevent serious and unwanted invasions of privacy. Most privacy laws and legal precedents already in place, such as Kyllo, will apply to nanotechnology. However, new legislation may be necessary, as it was after camera-phones became widely used. Legislative bodies and the public should be extremely vigilant about nanotech surveillance issues, since the risks to liberties are so great.

1Choi, Charles. "Nano-loaded wireless sensors". United Press International May 23, 2006.

2Mehta, Michael. "On Nano-Panopticism: A Sociological Perspective". 2002.

3Gutierrez, Eva. "Privacy Implications of Nanotechnology". Electronic Privacy Information Center. 2004.

4533 U.S. 27 (2001)


6Gutierrez, supra note 3

7Brin, David. "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?" Perseus Books, 1998.

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