By Mark Young
Can you imagine a world in which there is nowhere to hide? Where your expectation of privacy no longer exists? Where all your secrets might be revealed to the world? My current work in progress—Off The Grid, scheduled for release in December, 2011—is about these issues. A world in which a cop must live Off The Grid in order to survive a formidable opponent.
As I write this novel, my research keeps taking me down some very strange avenues of science, places at first glance that seem unbelievable. For example, terrorist—aided by recent developments in technology—might be able to carry weapons of mass destruction small enough to hide inside a suitcase. Surveillance capabilities that track and record a person’s life in minute detail using technology being developed right now. Technology so minuscule that the human eye may never detect it.
For a moment, let us consider a familiar security risk we deal with everyday—the computer. Everyone is aware of the potential risk when we use the internet. Still, we rely on this technology for personal things like paying our bills, making purchase, ordering pharmaceuticals, or publishing articles like this one. Governments rely on the integrators of this system, always trying to make sure they have the very latest cyber security system in place. Yet, hackers still break through these firewalls, stealing our identities, our money, and our information. Here are a few of the headlines over the last seven months:
- Serial hacker admits breaching Federal Reserve computers (April 19, 2011)
- Cyber attack forces ORNL to shut down Internet access (April 19, 2011)
- Federal Reserve Hacker Steals 400,000 Credit Card Numbers (November 19, 2010)
- $9m RBS WorldPay hack mastermind avoids jail (September 10, 2010)
We expect our communications to be protected by the service providers we use. Supposedly, our means of communications is protected by an unbreakable cryptographic system. We expect to be protected when we chat on our cell phones, transfer money into a checking account, or use a credit card. But yet, these crimes persist.
Quantum computers and nanotechnology might make matters even worse unless new safeguards are put into place in the very near future. Quantum computer (QC) technology—small enough to be contained in tiny molecular structures—may someday outmatch the capabilities of clusters of super computers around the world. These QCs—smaller than a pinhead—calculate data in a three-dimensional level instead of our current linear programs. These QCs threaten to destroy our current cryptograph systems because of the very nature of their code-breaking capabilities, operating in seconds what formerly took computers months and years to process.
QCs, coupled with the capabilities of nanotechnology, will revolutionize our manufacturing capabilities on a worldwide scale. How massive?
Jose Wolfe, editor of Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report, wrote: “Quite simply, the world is about to be rebuilt from the atom up. That means tens of trillions of dollars to be spent on everything: clothing… food… cars… medicine… the devices we use to communicate and recreate … the quality of the air we breathe … and the water we drink, are all about to undergo profound and fundamental change. As a result, so will the socio and economic structure of the world. Nanotechnology will shake up just about every business on the planet.”
Imagine the challenges law enforcement will face when this technology falls into the hands of sophisticated criminals. Due in part to this concern, staff members from several federal agencies began to meet regularly about their plans and programs in nanoscale science and technology. This blossomed into the Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology (IWGN) in 1998, and in 1999, this group completed its first draft of an initiative that ultimately resulted in it becoming a ‘federal initiative’ called the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Not surprising, the government did what it does best—disbanded the IWGN and created yet another group called the Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee. This group is responsible for riding herd on all of the federal government’s nanoscale research and development programs.
It is almost as enlightening to see who is assigned to one of these federal committees, as it is to see what they actually do. Which federal agencies are represented by NSET? Here is the alphabet-soup list:
Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)
· Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
· Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS/DOC)
· Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
· National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA/USDA)
· Department of Defense (DOD)
· Department of Education (DOEd)
· Department of Energy(DOE)
· Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
· Department of Justice (DOJ)
· Department of Labor (DOL)
· Department of State (DOS)
· Department of Transportation (DOT)
· Department of Treasury (DOTreas)
· Department of National Intelligence (DNI)\
· Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
· Food and Drug Administration (FDA/DHHS)
· Forest Service (FS/USDA)
· U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC)
· National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
· National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH/CDC/DHHS)
· National Institute of Health (NIH/DHHS)
· National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST/DOC)
· National Science Foundation (NSF)
· Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
· U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
· U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
If this is a subcommittee, can you imagine what a full committee must look like?
At least the federal government seems to recognize the importance that nanotechnology will have on this country—if not the rest of the world. However, a federal response to this issue may not be enough. A non-profit group—Center For Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN)—urges an international response, citing the risks if such an effort are not undertaken:
“ … MNT (molecular nanotechnology manufacturing systems) could spark an unstable arms race between nations, and could be very useful to terrorists. The dangers of an MNT-based arms race will require more study. But one thing that can probably reduce the dangers is international development of defensive technology, to be placed at the service of any nation that is threatened ..."
Who should be a part of this international response? That is what governments and industry leaders are beginning to try to hash out. As CRN and other groups warn, however, time is running out. The longer an international response is delayed, the greater the risk grows.