One of the Foresight Institute’s current projects is the “Open Source Sensing Initiative,” which uses “open source-style processes to develop sensor and data handling standards that take into account both the right to privacy and the right (or perceived need) to sense.” The potential conflict between individual privacy, on the one hand, and ubiquitous data collection for safety, security, and law enforcement, on the other hand, is approaching faster than has perhaps been anticipated due to a number of projects that make use of smart phones to gather data. The July 30 issue of New Scientist includes “Smartphone surveillance: The cop in your pocket” by Nic Fleming. A very brief preview of the article is available, but the full article requires a subscription. The article describes a number of projects underway or planned to enlist the general public to use smart phones to detect and automatically notify the authorities if, for example, certain vehicle license plates or deliberate jamming of GPS signals are spotted. The article acknowledges concerns about how such vast amounts of surveillance data would be used:

“Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute based in Palo Alto, California, warns that without safeguards, the data we gather about each other might one day be used to undermine rather than to protect our freedom. ‘We are moving to a new level of data collection that our society is not accustomed to,’ she says.” …

“‘We need to look urgently at who is getting the data, what they are doing with it, what it does to our freedoms and whether the information can be abused,’ she says. ‘And we need to think about these things now.'”

Establishing standards now for current and near future widespread sensing based upon smart phones owned by individual members of the public will set precedence for considering the future in which MEMS and nanotechnology will make truly ubiquitous and thorough sensing inexpensive.