Nanotechnology, Privacy and Shifting Social Conventions

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Nanotechnology promises (or perhaps threatens) to change the way we live. Like other novel technologies, nanotechnology will allow us to do new things, and so will present us with new choices. Importantly, nanotechnology may also influence the very values according to which we will make those new choices. In general, new technologies--even radically new ones--evolve within a more or less stable framework of conventional values, and the apparent novelty of any given technology doesn't automatically warrant skepticism about those values. So new technology doesn't warrant radically new approaches to ethics. (1) But none the less, all technologies--and especially paradigm-bending technologies like nanotechnology--have the ability to shape our values. This warrants careful thought.

The nano-technological application to be explored in this paper is surveillance technology, and the specific values to be discussed are values related to privacy. Privacy, according to Lessig, is to be understood as an ideal that stands in competition with the ideas of monitoring and searching. (2) That is, the less one's life is monitored, and the less one's life is subject to being searched, the more privacy one has.

A number of technologies being developed, or envisioned, within the broad category of nanotechnology have significant implications for the extent to which individuals are subject to monitoring and search. Technologies currently being developed or refined, including "smart dust" (3) and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags (4) are already posing challenges to privacy, to say nothing of the challenges that would be posed if we one day see inexpensive video cameras "with the size and aerodynamic characteristics of a mosquito." (5) Further, one of the less controversial predictions about nanotechnology is that it will lead to important breakthroughs in computer technology, breakthroughs that will help computer manufacturers break past what is otherwise expected to be the end of current yearly increases in computing power. (6)

Nanotechnology thus means the potential for significantly increased processing power--the kind of processing power that would make it feasible for individuals, corporations, and governments to process the massive quantities of data that can already be gathered by traditional surveillance equipment such as security cameras. As things stand, we have a certain degree of privacy even when in front of a surveillance camera; without powerful biometric software and databases capable of storing and comparing the face in front of Bank Camera A with the face in front of Airport Camera Z, a face is just a face. So if nanotechnology makes good on the promise of significantly improved computational capacity, this too will have an effect on privacy.

Such, then, is the description of the possibilities inherent in nanotechnology for altering the availability of privacy. If our evaluation of the ethical dimension of this aspect of nanotechnology is to proceed in way that depends less upon invocations of gut reactions than have most debates in biotechnology, we need to bring to bear some theoretical tools.

2. Theoretical Framework: Ethical Conventionalism

Theorists should make clear the theoretical underpinnings of their conclusions, if they wish to avoid giving the impression that they are merely moralizing. Thus I will next make explicit, and take some time to explain, one simple theoretical framework that may help us better understand the shifts in privacy-related values that may accompany the coming of nanotechnology.

My theoretical framework is "ethical conventionalism," or the view that ethical values, standards and principles should be understood in terms of social conventions. According to this view, ethics is about informal, tacit social "agreements" to act in certain ways, agreements that typically evolve in response to particular characteristics of our environment. …