Miniaturization and the Loss of Privacy

For the last 30 years one of the main preoccupations of engineers has been making things smaller. Smaller sizes for manufactured items have many advantages, starting with reduced manufacturing costs. Most of all, though, a smaller product may be able to be used in places and in ways that previously were impractical. To cite just one example, the new lightweight sound systems allow rock bands to play gigs that in the past they might have turned down because of the time and effort of setting up for the show.

Miniaturization also has its costs. One oft-mentioned downside is the difficulty of repairing many of the new miniature devices. For some products, only technicians at the original factory are really qualified to make repairs; for others, it is more practical to discard a damaged device than to attempt to repair it. A more serious consequence of miniaturization, though, is the loss of privacy that it implies. This can be seen most easily in the miniaturization of two kinds of devices: camcorders and power sources.

Camcorders are already small enough that they can be hidden in a person’s hat. Within 20 years, they will be so small that people will be able to hide them virtually anywhere. This will eventually include infrared “night vision” camcorders that can see you in the dark. What this will mean is that you will never be able to say with confidence that you are not being watched or that your actions are not being recorded. This element of privacy that we have always taken for granted is already partly gone and will be gone completely in a few more years.

Power sources erode privacy in a different way. Power can be used as a weapon; actually, most familiar weapons are “energy weapons” which cause damage by focusing energy on a small area. Guns, for example, use bullets to deliver energy to a target. When power sources become more compact, the security systems and technology that currently scan for handguns may have to be extended to search for smaller energy weapons — for electronic devices resembling the phasers seen on Star Trek. These detailed security scans will see everything you are carrying — for example, they might be able to tell exactly how much money you have in your pockets.

The trend toward smaller devices has so many compelling advantages that it would be foolish to imagine it can be stopped, in spite of the loss of privacy that it will create. And so we must look for ways to compensate and adjust so that we can still have the degree of privacy we need to live our lives.

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