Sensors Mag

Value vs. Risk-or, Daniel in the Lion's Den

March 23, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors

Daniel Hickey took his doctor's suggestion to have a microchip—encoded with his medical record—implanted under his skin. "If you're unconscious and end up in the emergency room, they won't know anything about you," Hickey was quoted in a Washington Post article last week. "With this, they can find out everything they need to know right away and treat you better."

Not everybody would make the same decision as Hickey, of course. And the dissenters have reason to fear. Liz McIntyre, co-author of a book that highlights the dangers of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, was quoted in the same article. "It may seem innocuous, but the government and private corporations could use these devices to track people's movements," she said. "It may sound paranoid, but this is bound to be abused."

Well, yeah.

But sure enough, I appreciate that Daniel Hickey is pioneering medical-records implant from the patient side and not leaving that task to me.

Opportunities for Abuse

Last week I wrote about some of the systems being developed to enable better healthcare for people who could benefit from sensor technologies in their living situations. I concluded with the acknowledgement that information security schemes will need to keep pace with monitoring advances because, as with implanted medical records, here too is opportunity for abuse.

Opportunity for abuse lies with all types of wireless sensor networks, but that hasn't stopped companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Irving, and Ford from deciding that the value outweighs the risks. In fact, nearly every technology development presents opportunity for abuse. Nuclear radiation is useful for making the world's most destructive bombs—and also for helping people recover from cancer.

We Need the Naysayers

Several years ago I attended a trade show in Chicago that featured RFID technology exhibits. In all my years of technology journalism, this was the first event I'd been to that attracted protesters. Whether the leader was Liz McIntyre or some other like-minded individual, the gist of the protest was the same: fear of RFID abuse.

We technologists in the exhibit hall found it easy to ridicule the protesters, but we should also be grateful for the alert. It's important to consider the down side—and then to move forward with plans to address it.

In the case of industrial wireless sensor networks, data-security schemes are keeping pace with power-reduction schemes—and the payoff continues to be clear. But though security schemes are apparently not yet so advanced in the realm of medical-records implants, I daresay that if I were in Daniel Hickey's shoes (that is, if I were 77 years old and my doctor advised it) I'd make the same decision. As it does for ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Irving, Ford and others, the benefit of wireless simply outweighs the risk.

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