Nanotechnology, Privacy and Shifting Social Conventions

By MacDonald, Chris | Health Law Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Nanotechnology, Privacy and Shifting Social Conventions


MacDonald, Chris, Health Law Review


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Nanotechnology, Privacy and Shifting Social Conventions
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.