In 2003, Michael Mehta wrote a paper predicting the future of nanotechnology and its implications on the privacy of individuals. As Mehta envisaged, nanotech would facilitate the creation of nanoscaled cameras that would be ubiquitous yet inconspicuous. He termed it ‘nano-panopticon’, derived from the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a panopticon, a specially designed prison where all prisoners can be watched by a single guard, and described this as a ‘very real threat’. Almost twenty years later, nanomedicine is preparing for a future of nanobots that will reside inside the body. These bots will monitor the cells for any changes that can lead to adverse events and nudge their hosts to seek medical treatment. This concept of the ‘Internet of Bio-Nano Things’ (IoBNT), raises questions about the privacy of an individual. This article will explore the different privacy issues that can arise by using technology such as this and ways to deal with them.
Loss of privacy outcomes
There are three major outcomes associated with loss of privacy, yet the greatest impact is on the individual. It is hardly surprising that we have already encountered these outcomes in the digital age.
The widespread use of digital technology has exposed nation-states that are keen to surveil their own people. Over the last decade, the installation of CCTV cameras as a measure to increase internal security has also made it easier to identify protestors of government policies and target them. While some protestors have managed to evade identification for now, it will be harder to hide when nano-sized bots inside the body can confirm their GPS location. Would embracing nanotechnology mean waiving your right to a peaceful protest? Would individuals have to choose between personalized healthcare or avoiding the ire of the nation-state?
Private information systems
Why just focus on the nation-state, when multinational corporations are also hungry for your personal information? We only need to look at the internet-based economy where everybody wants to deliver a customized user experience. From displaying personalized ads to recommending products related to your previous purchases, large corporations are amassing heaps of data about individuals from their online behaviour. Even in the context of genomic information, companies have been offering cheap tests to gather data that they can sell to the right buyer at the right price. Wouldn’t these corporations be interested in harnessing nanotech to know when someone is feeling hungry or developing a disease to sell the right product at the right time?
As nanotechnology develops, individuals will rush to reap the benefits. Who wouldn’t be interested in a device that sends alerts when you have an infection or administers medication when a disease is in its early stages. But as more data becomes available through the technology, more decisions will be based on it. Employers might not want to screen an individual for risks of an incurable disease before hiring them, insurance companies might reject insurance to individuals based on sensor data.
An individual visiting a clinic would know less about their own health status than the clinician staring at a computer screen. In the face of a pandemic, an overwhelmed healthcare system might reject treatment to individuals based on their poor prognosis. Unchecked, technology can lead to the creation of a large set of individuals that are vulnerable at a molecular level. Would we be okay with that in the name of technological advancement?
Addressing privacy issues
Luckily, we are still in the early stages of such technology and a few early moves can help us solve these issues. The main takeaway here is not to wait for technology to go mainstream before addressing these privacy concerns. Here’s what needs to be done:
Study the implications
When funding nanotech research, funds should also be allocated to the study of ethical, legal and social implications of technological development. Discussions about the implications should not be carried out by the bureaucracy or scientists involved. Instead, the discussions should involve all stakeholders. Mnyusiwalla et al recommend that even secondary school students should be included since this type of technology will impact their lives the most.
Create the rules of the game now
Entrepreneurs find innovative applications for new technology. In their quest, they constantly push boundaries of what is normal and acceptable. Once the technology becomes mainstream, it is difficult to put a regulatory fence around it. Therefore, the privacy framework for nanotechnology must be developed now and allowed to evolve with developing technology. This would allow entrepreneurs to direct innovations within these boundaries and without invading the privacy of individuals. It would also protect them from retrospective punishment, when a regulation is introduced at a future date.
Make devices privacy-friendly
Defining boundaries would also allow entrepreneurs to focus on multiple aspects of product expectation. If privacy is a customer need that needs to be addressed, technological solutions will also develop accordingly. Chris Toumey cites the development of a home pregnancy test as an example of privacy protection. It is not a high tech solution, yet offers extensive privacy when compared to going to a clinic and interfacing with staff. Nanotechnology solutions can also be designed to offer privacy and not increase individual vulnerability.
Advancements in technology are needed to move towards a better future. However, these advancements cannot come at the cost of liberty and individuality. Working on these issues now can help us define a better and brighter future, where individuals are not discriminated against using these advanced technologies.