Sensors Mag

Brotherly Love: Barnett Fears Not

December 4, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors


E-mail Barbara Goode

The most recent syndicated article by New York Times bestselling author Thomas Barnett, titled Loving Big Brother, took up the topic of ubiquitous sensing. Do the emerging technology's advantages outweigh its disadvantages?

As you might guess by his article's title, Barnett thinks so. He wants to challenge the fears of people who focus on the threatened loss of privacy and personal freedoms, and other potential downsides of the inevitable pervasive sensor network.

A Few Benefits

He gives the example of a salesperson who approaches you with a tie that matches the shirt you just bought down the street. "He'll also know you prefer gold cuff links in geometric shapes. How? Your cell phone will announce your arrival and allow the store to pull up all your preferences and recent purchases. So yeah, those cuff links will be on sale, but only for you, and only in that store, and only for the next 15 minutes," he writes. And lest you think this scenario is years away from reality, he points out that some stores In Singapore already offer this service.

Barnett sees a rosier picture for his golden years than that faced by today's elders—thanks to the coming ubiquitous sensor network.

A reader commenting on Barnett's essay, wowed by the technology implanted in his/her own body, concurs: "I'm a recipient of a nanosensor regarding my heart which can be fixed anywhere I am in the world by just standing in front of my machine." And the commentator isn't bothered by the "Big Brother" implications of the technology, saying, "our Constitution, Representatives and Judiciary hasn't been functioning on our behalf for years."

Some Twist on Orwell

"George Orwell had it completely wrong: ubiquitous sensing technology won't be the dictator's tool for enslaving ordinary citizens," Barnett writes. "Rather, it will give open societies the capacity for serious resilience in an increasingly connected world where danger knows no boundaries."

Reading the responses to Barnett's essay is as much fun as reading the original entry. A commentator called Chris responds by saying, "I think you miss the entire point of Orwell's parables. It's not so much the fact that such surveillance exists, as it is the fact that this surveillance is centralized in the hands of those in power. If the government can spy on me, and I can also monitor them for any shady dealings, under rule of law and the Constitution, then fine—I suppose that's quid pro quo.

"But if the government can spy on me, and there's no oversight into how they're spying on me, and any investigation into criminal wrongdoing on the part of folks in the government is quashed before it can begin in the name of "national security," then *that* is where things get Orwellian."

But technology will even the playing field, suggests another commentator, who notes that, "There is something of a movement out there to use 21st century tools to monitor the elites" and points readers to the Wikipedia entry on sousveillance.

Barnett concludes by saying, "ubiquitous sense-think-and-respond networks will constitute the cornerstone of our society's resilience in this Long War against terrorism, because tomorrow's definition of deterrence will be, 'anything the terrorists throw at us, we can counter faster.'"

What Needs To Happen First

As an article in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) points out, the scariest scenarios for abuse of sensor network-enabled power assume that each technology is working under a common standard—and we all know that that reality is not just around the corner. "That and the concerns of privacy and data protection may be the biggest issues holding back an Internet of Things," said the International Telecommunication Union in a study released last year.


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