Open Source Sensing Initiative Eyes How Sensors Affect Privacy and More

by Ostatic Staff - Jun. 24, 2009

No matter where you are, there are more sensors around you than you may realize. Inexpensive, but driven by processors that are maturing at a fast clip, they monitor the brake pads in your car, the sprinkler systems in the office, and can monitor motion, heat, and much more. Sensors are being deployed in security systems and airports all around the world, among many other places. Futurists believe that sensors will increasingly be embedded inside of us to monitor our physical systems and communicate information about them wirelessly to our mobile devices.

All of this is why Open Source Sensing is an interesting initiative. The organization's call to action reads like this: "Pervasive sensing is arriving soon — we have a short window of opportunity for guiding this technology to protect both our security and our privacy."

You can get familiar with the projects Open Source Sensing is working on through slides (PDF) and video from the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. Speakers from the Foresight Institute, which boosts applications for sensors in the field of nanotechnology, among other things, presented applications there for using sensors for homeland security and more. The Open Source Sensing initiative was launched by the Foresight Institute.

Christine Peterson, co-chair of the Foresight Institute, says that sensing technology can "improve both security and the environment, while preserving even strengthening privacy, freedom, and civil liberties." The Open Source Sensing initiative is seeking individuals and organizations to work with it on new applications for sensors.

In the overall field of sensing technology, one of the famous treatises is called "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." It's a doomsday scenario painted by former Sun Microsystems bigwig Bill Joy in which he predicts, among other things, that sensors and "nanobots" working in tandem, in large clouds and tiny sizes, have the potential to wreak biological havoc, transform warfare, and more. It predicts that we will lose control of them, and they will become autonomous.

The Foresight Institute's Peterson says:

"Open source defensive technologies will likely be the only ones capable of keeping up with rapidly-advancing offensive technologies, just as open source software is faster at addressing computer viruses today."

Could open source sensing technologies focused on playing defense defy the doomsday sensing technologies that Bill Joy discusses in his essay? That's one of the questions that the Open Source Sensing initiative seeks to answer.

A missive I received from the Open Source Sensing initiative also included this, which addresses how sensors are increasingly being used in surveillance and recording applications:

"The EFF's Brad Templeton warns that 'Cheap, ubiquitous sensing has the potential to turn the worlds of privacy and civil rights upside-down... It's not enough for governments to watch people; people have to watch governments.' His solution?...'Learning from the bottom-up approaches of the open source community.'

This sounds like an initiative worth watching. It's good to see the Foresight Institute (a long-standing, non-profit group) backing this.  You can keep up with Open Source Sensing's projects via its blog.