MIT’s Technology Review has an article today on research that is underway to make extremely sensitive and rapid molecular sensors—aka “artificial noses”—that are so thin they could even be integrated into paper or textiles.
The use of particle detectors and chemical sensors to identify tiny amounts of chemicals or odors is an area that we’ve been keeping an eye on for a while—something we file under “possible future privacy-invasive technologies.” As Technology Review describes it, this technology
rapidly detects volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—gases in our surrounding environment that are produced by a wide variety of sources, everything from household paints to a person’s own skin. Many do not have an odor, but an electronic sensor could alert a user to the presence of harmful chemicals or perhaps indicate that something is off-kilter with a user’s health.
The main context in which Americans have encountered chemical sensors so far is in bomb detection—mainly at the airport when they or their belongings are swabbed and tested for traces of explosives. A “puffer machine” that blows air on passengers standing inside a booth was also tested for a while but found to be so far impractical for mass deployment. We’ve never had a problem with particle detectors; as long as they are tuned only to look for explosives, they do not raise substantial privacy concerns, as explosives are not something people normally have. (We have pointed out that there can be questions about their effectiveness, and the importance of treating people who “alarm” properly given that false negatives are probable.)
But such deployments may be only the beginning. Here are some other chemical detection efforts that we have seen already:
• DHS has been working on a scheme to place chemical sensors in cell phones so that every American becomes a roaming chemical sensor able to alert the authorities to the release of chemical toxins resulting from accidents or terrorist plots.
• Companies are selling sensitive drug-sniffing products that go way beyond breathalyzers, such as contactless hand-held scanners that claim to be able to detect trace amounts of drugs on virtually all surfaces, including skin and clothing.
• DHS is also researching the use of body odor as a unique identifier or “odor fingerprint.” In theory, if that panned out, cheap and pervasive sensors could identify you everywhere you go.
• As part of the same project, DHS is also researching their use “as an indicator of deception”—in short, they are pursuing that perennial chimera, a lie detector. While lie detection is a fool’s errand, it’s possible that odor detectors could reveal very crude facts about people’s emotional state.
• Researchers are developing techniques for detecting medical conditions including cancer, asthma, and many other diseases by detecting “trace amounts of distinctive biomarkers in their breath.” (Sounds great in the hands of your doctor; used secretly during a job interview or bank loan application, not so much.)
• Under a pilot program spearheaded by the White House’s “drug czar” in 2006, the government tested sewage from treatment plants in the Washington, D.C. area to measure the amount of trace cocaine that was present. This was done in an effort to estimate the level of drug use in those communities. It did not reveal anything about specific individuals.
The breadth of activity in this area makes it clear that if this technology continues to advance rapidly and becomes cheap and widespread as so many other technologies have in recent years, we will be facing an entirely new set of privacy issues. A whole new range of facts about ourselves (health conditions; emotional state; drug, alcohol and pharmaceutical use; our identity) could become open to unwelcome scrutiny by others (government, employers, insurance companies, nosy neighbors).
Sometimes such technologies get scary very fast; other times they don’t turn out to be a problem. We’ll be watching closely.
- A Flexible Nerve-Gas Sensor (cen.acs.org)
- Electronic nose out in front (phys.org)
- A Nose in Your Clothes (technologyreview.com)
- Global Chemical Sensors Market to Reach $17.28 Billion by 2015, According to New Report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. (prweb.com)
South Africa would likely face sanctions from the United States if the largest economy in the African continent fails to meet the deadline to cut its crude oil imports from Iran.
The South African Petroleum Industry Association (PIA) said on Friday that it would have to expedite requests to the United States for a postponement and temporary exemption from the economic sanctions if South Africa fails to slash its imports of Iranian petroleum.
“This is not a business decision for us. It involves a political decision about political pressure,” PIA Executive Director Avhapfani Tshifularo said.
“We expect a Cabinet decision by the end of the month, and we will allow ourselves to be guided by that,” Tshifularo said.
The report comes as South African crude oil imports from the Islamic Republic of Iran have increased to $434.8 million in March from $364 million in February.
South Africa’s Revenue Service said on April 30 that Africa’s biggest economy imported 505,908 tons of Iranian crude in March, up from 417,188 tons the previous month.
South Africa has come under pressure from Washington to cut its crude imports from Iran in line with the sanctions designed to halt Tehran’s nuclear energy program.
According to the March data, South Africa’s crude imports totaled 1.6 million tons, with Nigeria supplying 38 percent, Iran 32 percent, Saudi Arabia 22 percent, and Angola the rest.
The US sanctions require foreign financial institutions to make a choice between transactions with the Central Bank of Iran and Iran’s oil and financial sectors or being banned from the US economy.
On January 23, the EU agreed to ban oil imports as well as petroleum products from Iran and freeze the assets of the Central Bank of Iran across the EU.
- South African telecom to face US sanctions over Iran, Syria operations (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- South Africa Must Resist Sanctions on Iran (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Iran oil ban to hit 10 main crude importers hardest (alethonews.wordpress.com)