Sensor Infusion or Intrusion?

Developing technology is like shopping. Sometimes you initiate the process with a particular goal in mind, and sometimes you begin just because you like the process itself. The big question is: Who sets the limits on what we use the technology for?

The Sky's the Limit
A lot of the technology we use today was developed to solve a particular problem. But after the technology's initial use, people tried to find other applications that it could be used for. If you have a technology, applications will come (or people will find ways of using it).

I believe that is the case with sensors. We started out measuring the basics: temperature and pressure. But we didn't stop there. Oh, no. We found we could do a lot more with the little gadgets. Now we have fingerprint sensors, radiation sensors—you name it, we have it. Today, you find all kinds of sensors in vehicles, home automation and security systems, and consumer electronics, as well as in military, industrial, and medical applications.

Enough Is Enough
My question is: At what point does the sensor infusion become intrusion?

I know this is heresy for someone in my position. I can hear my editor tearing up my time card now. But somebody has to ask the question. Consider two news stories.

Mike Landberg recently wrote an article in the Mercury Times titled "Sensors Will Let 'Things' Alert People."

In the article, he described an application where sensors in your toilet and sink talk to each other over a network and determine when someone hasn't washed their hands after using the bathroom. This is accomplished when the sensor that monitors when the toilet is flushed compares notes with the sensor that keeps an eye on when the faucets aren't used. In the final step of the process, the system sends an email via the Internet alerting someone—maybe your mother—that you didn't wash your hands.

Congos Systems of Irvine, CA, is working on a similar system, which it calls i-Hygiene. This piece of technology is aimed at the problem of hand washing among workers at restaurants, food production plants, and hospitals.

The second story, "Ubisense, a Company to Watch in 2006," discusses how Cambridge-based high-tech firm Ubisense has a system that can locate people and objects in a building in real time within 15 cm in 3D. The real-time location system uses sensors deployed in the building's existing network, along with ultra-wide band radio technology, to detect position tags attached to people or objects.

Do you want your boss—or anyone else for that matter—knowing where you are every minute of the day? Taken individually, these applications don't evoke any concern, but put them together with all the other like sensor applications, and they give you pause. Whether we're talking about BIG MOTHER or BIG BROTHER, we need to draw the line somewhere.