Nanotechnology’s Threat to Privacy Over-Hyped

The field of nanotechnology has been on the defensive for reasonable causes, such as the safety of workers that handle certain nanomaterials. But it also finds itself under attack from the purely fanciful, like charges of nanotechnology compromising our privacy.

The latest misleading screed on this particular avenue of inquiry comes from the International Business Times (IBT) in which we are told that personal privacy is not only "dead but getting deadlier with nanotechnology."

I have noted previously the rather imaginative approach the publication IBT takes to nanotechnology, and I know that I probably should just ignore them. But these stories keep ending up in my hopper and I suppose I am not the only one for whom this occurs. So I am taking it upon myself to call this publication out again for their less than accurate reporting on the subject.

First off, whatever personal privacy people think nanotechnology is taking away from them has long since disappeared with the existing potent combination of information technology, basic telecommunication technology and a video camera at every street corner. But this is ignored because the idea of an invisible nanorobot spying on you is just too seductive for these reporters.

What we get from IBT is: “Just imagine a spy invisible to your eye trace out your name, address, passport, driving license, SSN, health conditions, shopping or net surfing habits and just about everything else that governs your life in a day. All this is possible with the use of nanotechnology.” Umh…I though we got all of that with the Internet?

Then we get this bit that manages to get a number of matters mixed up: “For instance, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is pouring funds into nanocomputing because National Security Agency (NSA) is looking for faster ways to break codes. Till now, the NSA could break only up to 140 or so prime number encryptions and each set of decryption needed to be done serially.”

My first question when I read this was: What could the reporter possibly be thinking of when he uses the term “nanocomputing”? I can only guess that they have confused quantum encryption and quantum computing with something they call “nanocomputing”.

From there it gets even sloppier. We get two ideas brought together in the same paragraph that have absolutely no connection to one another: “Scientists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University have already replicated Quantum Computing with light in 2001 which made computing applications far easier. Nanotubes and nanowires are already developed and are racing to industrial fabrication.” I can only guess how these two sentences might be related to one another in the reporter’s mind, and my guesses scare me.

I suppose I should just dismiss articles like this and not even bring them to people’s attention. But I’ve seen before how these fear-mongering articles lead to more ignorance and misunderstanding. And that ignorance and misunderstanding actually can turn deadly as evidenced by the attacks of a terrorist group in Mexico last year.

In that case, the terrorists were attempting to defend the world from "grey goo"  by sending letter bombs to researchers they suspected of conducting nanotechnology research. Perhaps they would haven't been motivated to carry out their senseless act if more news stories covered how the theoretical grey goo resulting from nanobots devouring the world around them was a concept that had long been abandoned by the originator of the idea.

One can't help but think that this confusing of speculation with fact in relation to nanotechnology's postulated infringement on our privacy could result in the same dire consequences.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

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Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
 
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