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Sensors and Privacy

November 1, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors Sensors


A survey of more than 700 IEEE Fellows, done by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in conjunction with the Institute for the Future, sought to learn what science and technology developments are most likely to take hold within the next 10 to 50 years.

The extensive results (http://
spectrum.ieee.org/print/4435) include the prediction that miniature smart sensors "will increasingly be embedded in everyday objects and places, forming the basis for a sensory infrastructure." Of the entire survey, the one question that garnered the most consensus concerned RFID enablement. Ninety-five percent of respondents predict widespread proliferation.

"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," the article says, and it quotes Ken Goldberg, an IEEE Fellow and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley: "As we attach unique labels to more and more objects in our environment, our 'inventory management' systems must scale accordingly."

An Important Problem

The article's discussion of RFID and sensors ends by raising concerns about personal privacy that a sensor-rich world can expose. "Some engineers might think that it's up to the politicians and lawyers to work out the privacy challenges," says Goldberg. "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."

In the Today at Sensors blog, which we update daily on our homepage (www.sensorsmag.com) and deliver via email as part of our Sensors Daily "five-minute read" newsletter (www.sensorsmag.com/1106/GSdaily), executive editor Stephanie Henkel has explored privacy issues from a number of angles—and her commentary has inspired several readers to chime in.

Recently, she took up the issue of Secure ID, which she calls a truly bad initiative (www.sensorsmag.com/1106/GSsid). "Brought to you by your federal and state governments, the basic idea of Secure RFID is to assign each U.S. citizen an identity card with an embedded RFID chip containing a great deal of information. What information? Who knows?"

The chips are destined for inclusion in U.S. passports; other countries have already implemented this plan. Henkel points to the Crypto-Gram Newsletter of respected commentator Bruce Schneier (www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-0511.html#1) and notes that while the passport chips are designed to be decoded only within inches of a reader, they actually can be interrogated at up to 69 feet away.

"U.S. travelers passing through overseas (or domestic) customs, checking into a hotel, or visiting a currency exchange stand a good chance of giving up lots of information they'd rather keep to themselves," writes Henkel. She suggests, by the way, that you renew your passport now while it's still "pre-improved."

What's your take on privacy compromises indicated by sensors and RFID? Please join the discussion! Drop us email, or scroll to the bottom of any page on the site (look for "Post a Comment") to remark on the corresponding article. We hope to hear from you.


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