"Smart Dust" May Soon Be Watching You
King 5 | Nov 20 2004
It's a project first dreamed up by the military to get information from the battlefield.
They call it "Smart Dust" and it may soon make it possible to keep track of anything, anywhere, including you.
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They are the world's smallest wireless sensors. And at about the size of a wristwatch, the contain a battery powered microphone, an accelerometer, as well as temperature and humidity sensors, according to Sam Godwin, Vice President of Crossbow.
Scatter them 250 feet apart and they will form their own wireless network similar to a spider's web.
Smart Dust was first designed for the military, enabling troops to crop dust enemy lines with of millions of networked wireless sensors too small to see and too numerous to destroy.
They can be used to track enemy troops or where a gunshot is coming from.
Through a contract with the Pentagon, researchers invented Smart Dust at the University of California in the late 1990s.
"I coined the name Smart Dust to describe where all this was headed," said Kris Pister, chief technology officer for Dust Networks.
Pister said an initial prototype as small as a grain of rice was able to sense, think, talk and listen.
Smart Dust has enormous potential to improve lives. It can offer a high-tech inexpensive way to monitor a pipeline in Auburn, securing the perimeters at the Purdy jail, monitoring the nuclear power plant in Hanford or sensing vibration on Tacoma Narrows bridge, even monitor children at day care centers.
But privacy experts warn Smart Dust has a potential dark side. Imagine living in a city coated with wireless sensors.
In the futuristic movie "Minority Report," even billboards seemed to know the identity of people passing by.
Something like Smart Dust is already on the way even closer to home.
Radio frequency ID chips, RFID, may soon be in driver's licenses and passports, even consumer items like clothes.
"And these chips can be read without your knowledge. And by reading them people can get a unique number which means you can be tracked using them," said Kevin Bankston, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
And guess what? RFID can be read by Smart Dust.
"That is a concern," says Godwin.
Not just the government, but businesses could trade information about where you are, what you are wearing, what you eat and where you shop.
"This is like when you are walking around, someone is following you everywhere you go and writing it down and storing it and probably selling it to someone," Bankston says.
But some argue most of it is already possible because of credit card records, cell phone logs, security cards.
"If you think it is going to enable people to invade privacy in ways they haven't been able to do before, that is not true," says Pister.
A Smart Dust coated world may still be a few years away.
But it's possible for an invention that could save us from pipeline accidents and keep our children safe, to also put Big Brother on every building, door and window ledge.