Sensory Swarms, an improvement for people or a threat for privacy?

It’s the year 2030 and you are walking with your friend to a cafe in a new city. You see this cosy little cafe and both of you decide to enter the cafe. As soon as you enter the cafe the hostess says: “Hello Mr/Ms “YourName”, we have a table near the back of our cafe as seen in your preferences.” When sitting down the hostess asks: “Would you like to order a Cappuccino, like last week, or do you want something else this time?”. You decide to order a Cappuccino and when you sit down you tap on the table to view the menu on the table. You get a list of recommended items in order to your preferences. You decide to order a tuna salad, like always.

This future event with your friend going into a cafe is pure fiction, however the knowledge of the cafe may be not. How is it possible that this café knew that you were in the neighbourhood, and how did it know what your favourite and preferred drinks/food are? The answer: “Smart Dust”

Smart Dust are tiny little microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) that can detect i.e. vibrations, humidity, temperature, light, movement, magnetism, and chemicals. Tiny devices of 2mm each, work as an system to transfer data to each other. Each of those devices has a small “router” in them to send and receive information. The devices have a wireless range of maximum 10 meters. Due to the small range, it is necessary to have a lot of tiny devices close to each other to transfer data on a larger scale. Their energy source is solar energy, because they have a small solar cell and a small battery in them.

The idea descends from Kristofer Pister, a professor at Berkeley. When Pister presented the idea to his colleagues, his concept attracted the US military and Pister received funds to further his work. The first test was in 2001 were six tiny devices (MEMS) were dropped in a field to detect a military vehicle. The test was successful and they even managed to capture the course and speed of the vehicle. Last year a team of Michigan students successfully embedded solar cells in the MEMS to extend their life drastically.

There are many business implementations for Smart Dust. Pister accomplished to gather information about the weather in San Francisco with a radius of 21km using Smart Dust. Defence related implementations are also possible, such as battlefield surveillance and transportation tracking. Transportation tracking is also possible to control inventories. The tiny Smart Dust devices will take over RFID technology in that case. You can also think of product quality control. Some products need to be stored under certain conditions and smart dust makes it easy to monitor temperature, humidity, vibrations etc. There are more business implementation you can think of such as virtual keyboards, smart offices etc.

The main objective for the researches is to extend the life of the devices even more. When companies start to produce Smart Dust the variable cost of one device will be extremely low. The machines to produce MEMS will be costly at the start, but when this technology becomes feasible for companies it will be implemented on a large scale. Researches ask for caution when implementing this technology, because of the environmental impact. No one wants to live in a city with billions of devices floating in the air. Pister did inhale a device (MEMS) and said that it is equal to inhaling a fly. You will cough it up.

Another thing that researchers ask caution for is privacy. Smart Dust devices can measure a lot of things and they are still trying to implement new kind of sensors in the device. It is also possible that Smart Dust will contain microphones to listen in on conversations. Let’s go back to the introduction. It is possible that your clothes, Identity card and maybe yourself will contain Smart Dust which has information about you and will communicate it with businesses. Where camera’s are easy debatable, because they are visible, Smart Dust is not. People cannot see smart dust being there and don’t know if they will be monitored and for what purposes. Another problem is that information gathered by Smart Dust can possibly be stolen by hackers. You can also think of Smart Dust being used to spy on people or businesses. Someone can scatter some device in a house or conference room to obtain classified information.

Smart Dust is a technology with lots of potential and that’s why it entered Gartner’s hype cycle. It will take some more years to make this technology feasible for the market. Meanwhile the discussion how far monitoring of people can go with current technologies will go on and the discussion will intensify if Smart Dust will be implemented.

Kevin Schaap (358985)


M. Kahn, R. H. Katz and K. S. J. Pister (1999) “Mobile Networking for Smart Dust”, ACM/IEEE Intl. Conf. on Mobile Computing and Networking, Seattle, WA, August 17-19, 1999

S. J. Pister, J. M. Kahn and B. E. Boser, (1999) “Smart Dust: Wireless Networks of Millimeter-Scale Sensor Nodes”, Highlight Article in 1999 Electronics Research Laboratory Research Summary.

Hsu, J. M. Kahn, and K. S. J. Pister, (1999) “Wireless Communications for Smart Dust”, Electronics Research Laboratory Technical Memorandum Number M98/2, February, 1998.

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6 responses to “Sensory Swarms, an improvement for people or a threat for privacy?”

  1. thommenju says :

    Imagine the application in med tech as well! Maybe the doctor doesn’t need to send you through an MRI anymore but you just swallow some ‘smart dust’ instead that is designed to gather information about your body functions. You then just dispose them automatically after use. I think in this application the privacy, environmental impact and defense considerations are also less severe.

    Personally, I think its very easy to abuse this kind of technology but it can also do much good if applied to solve some pressing problems we have!

  2. 354283es says :

    I think the Smart Dust is a really good example of a new technology that both positively and negatively surprises the audience. On one hand, Smart Dust indeed has positive effects: it shows the endless possibilities in technology (for example in healthcare). On the other hand, I am concerned about the privacy issue: this technology can be seen as some sort of 3D cookies, which take information of the life style of an individual without that person being aware of it. Once Smart Dust enters the market, a possibility to block your items against Smart Dust should excist. In this way, individuals can determine on sharing of information theirselves, just like we can with cookies (adblockers) and location sharing (switch-off button on your phone). In this way, the privacy issue will be partly solved.

    • 358985ks says :

      The idea of blocking Smart Dust is interesting. You can’t see the devices, so it is impossible to know if Smart Dust is turned off or not. We already have privacy issues regarding the NSA. Even when you protect yourself heavily against infringement on privacy, they will still find ways to gather information about you.
      It will be interesting to see how people will deal with Smart Dust and privacy infringement in future.

  3. gsacha says :

    Hi! Very interesting post.

    I agree with your argumentation.

    When you talk about large production volumes, will it ever be cheap enough so we can use it on a large scale? For example, in the retail industry, if a liter of milk costs 0.10 cents, will this technology be cheap enough to take over the function of a bar code?

    This technology could also be very easily diverted by hackers. If we use this technology at the human level, absolutely everything in a person’s life would be trackable. In terms of competition, companies could very easily spy on each other. Do you think we could ever build a security system that hackers wouldn’t break?

    Still, I also think of a very useful application of this technology: pharmaceutical conterfeiting. As we know, medicine can be very expensive and conterfeit in this industry spreads as it does in many other industries. If we could associate this technology with a specific identification code, it would become very easy to track conterfeit medicine.

    Today, technology continues to advance and mature, the most important is to find the right limits!

    • 358985ks says :

      Thanks for your comment.

      About the large production volumes. It is inevitable that the prices will drop drastically. The market is waiting for this technology to reach a mature level. The R&D costs are very high, but when the market will be starting to produce Smart Dust, companies will use the “China Strategy”. Just copy what others (universities) are doing. The machines to produce Smart Dust will be costly at first, but will decline over time. The raw material costs for producing one smart dust device is very low, because its really tiny. Researchers are expecting that when companies will start producing, they will in massive amounts to make the costs per device as low as possible. That is why researchers ask for caution.

      You made a good point about the hackers. This application will be a breakthrough in the coming 10-20 years, but when this technology is not strictly supervised and restrained it will cause huge problems.

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