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EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report

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EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report 2006

Title Page Previous Next Contents | Privacy Topics >Nanotechnology


Nanotechnology is a broad, emerging science in which matter is manipulated on the scale of one to one hundred nanometers, or billionths of meters. These dimensions enable developers to create devices and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small size.[967] This new technology is believed to have the potential to fundamentally transform the way in which common products are produced by manipulating their component parts on the atomic level.[968] This process is expected to result in the manufacturing of products that are smaller, stronger, and lighter than those available today.[969] Key areas of nanotechnology research include: biology, materials research, medical, and defense applications.

Nanotechnology will likely raise serious challenges to the protection of individual privacy. Nanotechnology has the capability of dramatically enhancing surveillance devices.[970] As nanotechnology makes computing devices smaller and more powerful, collecting, storing, sharing and processing large amounts of information will become easier and cheaper.[971] The tiny size of observation devices, such as cameras and microphones, will make their detection considerably more difficult by the individual being surveyed. Miniaturization and pervasive networking of information-gathering systems will also pose acute obstacles to methods of control and data protection.[972]

Nanotechnology evokes the potential for privacy invasion on the most intimate levels. For instance, nano- and microelectronic systems are able to interface directly with the nervous systems of biological organisms, controlling movement and behavior. The United States military and associated institutions currently conduct such research on insects, embedding them with optical and audio sensors, GPS and the means to relay information back to those in control. Known as the HI-MEMS project, the goal is to create tiny, relatively inexpensive, remote-controlled cyborg spies.[973]

Nanotechnology has a broad range of health-related applications. Among these is the “lab on a chip” device, in which miniscule analyzers examine biological tissue to rapidly compile comprehensive personal diagnoses. Such systems, under development at MIT and funded by the U.S. military, could perform hundreds of chemical analyses, such as warning of contagion on a battlefield, or screening DNA for genetic disorders.[974]

Forensic science is also receiving an upgrade from nanotechnology. A process developed by UK-based Roar Particles utilizes nanoparticles and advanced spectrometry to analyze fingerprints in great detail. The technique can reveal if fingerprint bearers use illegal or prescription drugs, or if they have handled explosives. If the prints leave behind skin particles, the system can provide a DNA profile. Roar Particles is refining its technology to identify ethnicity, gender and diet. The process is currently being piloted with police forces in Australia and Singapore.[975]

Nanotechnology will also enhance information security methods. As nanotechnology enables quantum computing,[976] stronger cryptographic techniques will become available. On the other hand, stronger de-cryptographic tools will become available as well. Today’s most commonly utilized cryptographic method, the Public Key system or RSA encryption, will be rendered obsolete with the advent of the quantum computer.[977]

Numerous calls for ethical oversight and regulation of nanotechnology have been issued, though most are focused on the environmental effects of nanoparticles.[978] In 2004, the Commission of the European Communities released a report in which it emphasized adherence to ethical principles such as individual autonomy and protection of privacy and personal data.[979] The Commission’s report stated that appropriate, timely supervision is essential, as is increasing public awareness regarding nanotechnology to ensure a measured regulation.[980] Similarly, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) 2004 Strategic Plan recommended the federal government support public education, as well as address health, environmental and privacy concerns stemming from disbursement of nano-based sensors.[981]

Nanotechnology does not pose new privacy problems so much as it exacerbates old ones. Questions concerning consent, access and control over the information involved already arise in the context of contemporary technologies. In its 2006 report, UNESCO stated that nanotechnology’s relationship with privacy, secrecy, and consumer protection overlap with existing discussions; thus nanotechnology ethics should not start from scratch but should build on these ongoing debates.[982]

Likewise, existing laws could address many of these problems. The European Commission’s report, for example, noted that privacy, security and dignity principles implicating nanotechnology are already embodied in international documents like the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.[983] What remains is for these principles to be enforced through regulation.[984] Nonetheless, most governing bodies seem to be at a stage where they are still researching the likely effects of nanotechnology on society.

In 2005, funding for nanotechnology research in the United States was established under the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.[985] The National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel, created by the Act, issued a report on nanotechnology in May 2005.[986] According to the report, USD 82 million will be budgeted to examine, among other things, the impact of nanotechnology on personal privacy.[987] Legislation is being developed to spur innovation and place the United States in a leading position with this early stage technology.[988] The National Nanotechnology Initiative funded $373 million in 2007, an increase of 8.6 percent from 2006.[989] Japan’s expenditure is second to the United States, and the European bloc is third; however, the nanotechnology investments of both Japan and the EU are projected to overtake that of the U.S. by 2013.[990]

Although nanotechnology is already incorporated into nearly 500 consumer products,[991] a 2006 Hart Research survey found that 42 percent of the American public has heard nothing at all about the technology. Awareness is increasing, however, as this is twice the number of those polled that had heard of nanotechnology in 2004.[992] The same poll also indicated that 54-55 percent of Americans believed the federal government, universities and independent researchers should be involved in overseeing innovations like nanotechnology, rather than relying on the self-regulation of private industry.[993] This lack of public awareness on the subject of nanotechnology poses a barrier to privacy regulation. Privacy safeguards are much more effective when incorporated in early stages of technological development, and weak public knowledge may evidence a dearth of political will to establish privacy checks on nanotechnology.[994]

[967] National Nanotechnology Initiative, “What is Nanotechnology?,” available at <> (last visited July 3, 2007).
[968] Mike Treder, "The Meaning of Nanotechnology," Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, January 14, 2005 <>.
[969] Jennifer Bails, "Nanotechnology Is Next Big Thing in Electronics and Manufacturing,", January 2, 2005 <>.

[970] Charles Choi, "Nano World: Nano could lead to new WMDs," UPI, May 23, 2005, available at <>.
[971] Ricardo Ochoa, "Tiny Devices Offer Tremendous Potential," News from the States, National Conference of State Legislatures, Summer 2005 <>.
[972] Armin Grunwald, “Nanotechnology – A New Field of Ethical Inquiry?” 11 Science and Engineering Ethics, 193 (2005).

[973] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Hybrid Insect MEMS Research Solicitation, March 9, 2006, available at <>. See also DARPA Microsystems Technology Office, HI-MEMS Program, available at <> (last visited July 3, 2007).

[974] Grunwald, supra at 194. See also Anne Trafton, “Portable 'lab on a chip' could speed blood tests,” October 16, 2006, available at <>.

[975] Nanowerk News “Nanotechnology fingerprint analysis looks at more than just patterns,” July 1, 2007, available at <>.

[976] The Oxford dictionary defines quantum computers as “computer[s] which make use of the quantum states of subatomic particles to store information.” Compact Oxford English Dictionary, "quantum computer" definition, available at <>.
[977] Nanoforum, Nanotechnology and Civil Security, June 2007, available at <> at 42-43.

[978] See e.g. Nano Risk Framework, Environmental Defense – DuPont Nano Partnership, June 2007, available at <>.
[979] Commission of the European Communities, Towards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology, May 12, 2004, available at <> at 19-20.
[980] Id. at 18.
[981] National Science and Technology Council, National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan, December 2004, available at <> at 24.

[982] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology, 2006, available at <> at 20.

[983] Commission of the European Communities, Towards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology, supra at 19.
[984] Id.

[985] U.S. White House, "President Bush Signs Nanotechnology Research and Development Act," (press release), December 3, 2003, available at <>.
[986] National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel, The National Nanotechnology Initiative at Five Years (2005) <>.
[987] Id. at 35.
[988] Johan Bostrom, "Senators Will Propose Legislation to Spur Innovation,", July 20, 2005 <>.
[989] U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government Fiscal Year 2007, <> (last visited July 3, 2007).
[990] Cordis News, “German Nano Spending Outstrips That of Other Member States,” June 6, 2007, available at <>.

[991] Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, A Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory, available at <> (last visited July 3, 2007).
[992] Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “Public Awareness of Nanotechnology Grows, But Majority Unaware,” September 19, 2006, available at <> at 1.
[993] Id. at 2.
[994] Gaia Bernstein, When Technologies Are Still New: Windows of Opportunity for Privacy Protection, 51 VLLR 921 (2006).

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