In A World Full Of Sensors, Who’s Watching The Watchers?

I’m still here in Amsterdam at Nokia World, and listened to an interesting talk this morning from Joe Paradiso, who heads up the Responsive Environments Group at MIT’s famous media lab. The group works on building all sorts of sensor devices and networks, and devising new ways to blend the real and virtual worlds.

They do a lot of interesting stuff by putting sensors in all sorts of things. For instance, they installed power strips with sensors built in in their offices, allowing them to track noise and light levels, power consumption, and a bunch of other things. It’s not entirely practical, but it allows for some interesting insights, like being able to tell which rooms of the office are the most active, or the most popular times for people to work, and so on.

It’s not too difficult to envision a future full of sensor networks gathering all sorts of information about their surroundings. There are a lot of “good” potential applications — for instance, motion sensors being used in sports-tracker apps (like the Nike+ sensor for the iPod) — but it’s also easy to think of plenty of undesirable ways sensor networks could be used to keep tabs on people. Indeed, even when the Nike+ was released, some people cried that it could be used to track users’ movements, though it would require a lot of dedication on the part of the stalker.

But given the way people are already worried about privacy in the mobile sphere, could all these sensor networks be a step too far? Sure, people want the useful applications such networks could provide, like environmental reports, or enhanced social networking. But anything that offers the potential to track users’ movement and behavior — even if it’s just aggregated, rather than individual data — will raise plenty of eyebrows.

We’ve discussed before the idea of sousveillance — that people can use their cameraphones to keep an eye on each other, and in particular on police and governments — and it’s one that many people (mostly unknowingly) buy into. But when the focus swings back to surveillance, it makes people very uneasy. And that could make it difficult for large-scale networked sensor projects to take off, even if they’re benevolent ones.

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