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Brandon Engel

Governments and tech companies are working to develop security applications for nanotechnologies. What are some of the potential advantages, and what are some of the potential security risks?

May 6th, 2014

Nanotechnology and Security

Security is of prime importance in an increasingly globalized society. It has a role to play in protecting citizens and states from myriad malevolent forces, such as organized crime or terrorist acts, and in responding, as well as preventing, both natural and man-made disasters. Research and development in this field often focuses on certain broad areas, including security of infrastructures and utilities; intelligence surveillance and border security; and stability and safety in cases of crisis. The applications for intervention range across many sectors including transport, civil protection, energy, environment, health, and financial systems.

Nanotechnology is coming to play an ever greater title:role in these applications. Whether it's used for detecting potentially harmful materials for homeland security, finding pathogens in water supply systems, or for early warning and detoxification of harmful airborne substances, its usefulness and efficiency are becoming more evident by the day.

Through the use of imaging, sensors and sensor networks, previously invisible, odorless substances can be detected with startling precision and accuracy; once-impermeable boundaries are rendered transparent. In the realm of identification, anti-counterfeiting and authentication nanotech, along with quantum cryptography, have obvious uses for identity protection.

On the other hand, more and more unsettling scenarios are fathomable with the advent of this new technology, such as covertly infiltrated devices, as small as tiny insects, being used to coordinate and execute a disarming attack on obsolete weapons systems, information apparatuses, or power grids.

While we must be aware of menacing forces from without, within our country these technologies can be harnessed for not-so-benevolent purposes: invasion of and hampering of individual privacy and security in ways so stealth its more than a little unnerving. While nanotech is being developed and researched under the pretense that it will be used for good, there is reason to believe that governments will be able to use it to invade our personal lives.

This is disconcerting because of the recent headlines we've seen about tech developers in the private sector such as Nest (recently acquired by Google) and ADT Security Choice, who have been developing security platforms for the consumer market which make use of smartphone apps—which might sound great, until you consider how simple it would be for someone to crack into your IP address and deactivate an entire system. Nanotechnology-based miniaturized sensors, tags and smart dust motes are some other new exotic tools for governments and third parties to spy on unsuspecting citizens.

The point is this: whatever conveniences are seemingly afforded by these sort of technological advances, there is persistent ambiguity about the extent to which this technology actually protects or makes us more vulnerable. Striking the right balance between respecting privacy and security is an ever-elusive goal, and at such an early point in the development of nanotech, must be approached on a case by case basis. Some might argue that the expectation of absolute privacy is a quaint expectation in an age of big data and digital customization. While this may be true in certain respects, it shouldn't relieve citizens of their duty to remain vigilant in the fact of encroaching privacy invasion.

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