While the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether it’s lawful to covertly track a suspected felon through warrantless GPS monitoring (see April 15, 2011 petition here), the European Commission is tackling a more powerful, already implemented technology that could potentially threaten everyone’s privacy if left unregulated.


Ever heard of the “Internet of Things?” The term was coined by the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) community 10 years ago and refers to sensors that can read physical, environmental changes and report them back over the internet. (RFID technology uses radio waves to identify data from an electronic tag and has commonly been used by businesses for inventory management and logistics.)

The Internet of Things is a collection of sensors that are “readable, recognizable, locatable, addressable and/or controllable via the Internet.” Imagine these as sensors of any kind with the ability to monitor any type of action, including radiation detection.

The good news about having lots of sensors spread around: The recent devastating earthquakes and tsunami in Japan prompted a need for immediate region-wide radiation detection. During what has emerged in the last few weeks as a nuclear accident ranked as seriously as Chernobyl, the internet of things played its part in monitoring and reporting back over IP (Internet Protocol) the radiation levels in real-time to news sources, rescue and aid organizations, and the brave cleanup crews. Hundreds of radiation sensors, very much like weather sensors, were already in place – strategically positioned around the country for an event just like this disaster.

Sensors, like the ones used to monitor radiation in Japan, can all be operated remotely and businesses are beginning to use them in remarkable ways. One company allows food suppliers to trace their goods along the supply chain, allowing their customers to see where the food came from. Another lets farmers monitor the health and vitals of their livestock through sensors planted in an animal’s ear. And the technology is not reserved only for businesses, thanks to a company making recent waves in the news called Pachube.  

Now anyone can use the system to link a sensor, and have the Pachube computer control a setting. For instance, one developer uses a temperature sensor in his office and has Pachube automatically turn on the fan for him. Pachube’s sensor data is available to anyone in real-time, and the service is free. It’s clear that these “smart systems” are allowing businesses to improve their services and better allocate their resources, but they could also be used for more sinister purposes.

But if we let our imagination run a little, we start to see a potential problem for privacy.

Envision walking by a remotely operated sensor, monitored over a service like Pachube, as all of your clothes and your electronic devices contain RFID tags. The sensor reports your exact preferences and the receiving party – the manufacturer, for instance, has your credit card information on file. The sensor now knows exactly who you are from the RFID tags. This is where the implications and dangers of this kind of technology really begin to run rampant and why many countries are already ahead of the game in preparing regulation.      

The European Commission, along with supply chain standards organization GS1 and the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) are partnered in working on implementing guidelines for all companies in Europe using RFID technology in order to address the issue of data-protection. Miguel Lopera, GS1’s CEO, stated that the partnership is working so that “no personal data is actually present on a tag.” Is it then up to the individual companies to protect the purchaser’s information in some sort of gentleman’s agreement?

Sensors like the ones used to transmit radiation data in Japan are undeniably important during a crisis. If left unchecked, this technology, along with Pachube’s efforts to “democratize the sensor” could allow anyone to set up a sensor and secretly monitor what it is reading.

I don’t know about you, but that idea scares me.