Sniffing Out Privacy Issues That May Be In Our future


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.

Add a comment (2)
Read the Terms of Use

adele pace

Any technology which purports to reduce the risk of terrorism is likely to attract popular support and funding, whilst the civil liberties and privacy implications are relegated or completely ignored. Particle sniffers being used as de facto lie detectors? Possible. Who would have thought that brain imaging would have any evidentiary value in criminal trials in the US, however there is already case law.


When entering any paonrsel data online there’s always going to be an element of risk. With Facebook’s recent press fiasco with their privacy settings, this time they’ve had a good think about their security options for Places. Many of course will find this combination of social media and GPS useful and exciting, using the benefits of this feature, and some will no doubt wonder why it has taken Facebook so long to come up with their own version. However, there are still concerns surrounding this type of technology which some members of the general public still find uncomfortable with location features. There needs to be an element of common sense here, do check your paonrsel security settings, Facebook may have not made it the easiest thing to do, but it doesn’t take that long in the grand scheme of things and perhaps it may be a good idea not to divulge every piece of information concerning your whereabouts. At the end of the day, if you don’t want people to know where you are don’t use it.

Stay Informed