Issues Magazine

Welcome to the Sensor Society

By By Mark Burdon

Lecturer, TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland

The explosion of sensors in smartphones and wearable devices and the growing embrace of “big data” are creating a “sensor society”, raising issues not only about surveillance but also power and control in a world of ever-watching, ever-sensing, always-on interactive devices.

We are living in a time of unprecedented technological change. In the past decade alone we have seen the advent of the smartphone, of vast social networks such as Facebook, and the continuing realisation of “big data”.

But how should we think about these immense technical and social changes? We can readily see benefits that arise from these developments but how do we think about the potential negative implications of a human world that is increasingly digitised, connected and recorded? Do the frameworks of privacy and surveillance enable us to work out the benefits of large-scale technological development along with the potential negative consequences?

This article details a new framework to work out the concerns of this new world. The “sensor society” brings together four currently disconnected attributes of rapid technological development. When connected, these four attributes provide a new way of thinking about our lives in an increasingly digitised society that goes beyond traditional notions of privacy and surveillance.

Our journey into the sensor society begins with a small piece of technology that is fast becoming the most common feature of everyday devices: the sensor.

It Starts with Sensors

We have seen some surprising technological developments during the past couple of years. There is now a “magic carpet” for use in aged care homes that can predict when a person is likely to fall. Sensors in the carpet can detect changes in gait patterns and detect vagaries in walking behaviour. Other sensors can also detect the presence of chemical spills or fire, and the carpet can therefore be used as an early warning emergency system.

The South Korean government is using a network of Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect gaming system to patrol the demilitarised zone between the South and North Korean border. The reason why? Kinect can differentiate between the movement of humans and animals better than any system designed by the Korean government.

The nappy maker Huggies has even released a new nappy called TweetPee with a “cute little bird-shaped sensor” that attaches to the nappy and senses moisture changes. When the nappy gets wet, the parents are notified by Twitter that it’s time for a change.

You will have worked out by now that these seemingly extraordinary developments are possible because of sensors. These examples represent the increasing sensorisation of everyday devices that is quietly but rapidly becoming commonplace.

One of the key targets of sensor development is the smartphone. You may be surprised to know that the average smartphone now has up to a dozen sensors packed inside it. Proximity sensors work out how close the phone is to your face so the screen can be deactivated, thus making sure that you won’t press a button by mistake. An accelerometer senses when you are holding the phone up or down and thus allows the phone’s interface to seamlessly glide from portrait to landscape at the flick of a wrist. Other sensors detect light, movement and moisture. All of these sensors collect data about the phone’s use.

In thinking about the role of sensors in a sensor society, it is important to consider more deeply the purpose of data collection by that sensorised device. Sensors do not monitor and listen to us directly. Rather, sensors detect and record what is happening around them. As such, sensors do not rely on us being aware of them for data collection to take place. In fact, the opposite is the case.

Data collected by sensors requires a form of passive monitoring on behalf of the device user. This has important implications, especially considering how much data sensors are now collecting about our activities and our lives.

Data Deluge

We have witnessed an explosion of data in the past decade. Consider these statistics. About 2.2 trillion internet searches were conducted on Google in 2013, and for the first time mobile searches are expected to replace desktop searches in 2014 as the most common form of searching on Google. This is not surprising given that there are now 4.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions. The US retail giant Wal-Mart collects data from more than a million customer transactions every hour. More than 140 billion photographs have been uploaded onto Facebook.

We now generate more data than we have ever done before. This is partly from human action, such as when we post a photo or conduct an internet search, but a significant amount of the data generated is the metadata recorded in relation to our actions by sensorised devices. Think of the elements of our increasingly “smart world” – the smart home, the smart building, smart grids. All of these aspects of the smart world contain sensorised devices that enable the data collection required for the smart world.

However, this type of collection is very different to our previously non-smart environments. In fact, the logic of data collection from device sensorisation is actually circular and continuous rather than specific and purposeful. More sensors create more data, which in turn open more avenues for new data collection by newly developed sensors. Databases are forever updated with data generated mechanically and automatically from sensors. The issue therefore moves to how to make sense of all this data. Sensors, the data they generate and analytical techniques therefore go hand-in-hand in the sensor society.

Making Sense

How do we make sense of all this data? Welcome to the rhetoric and actuality of the “big data” world. Big Data is a concept that is increasingly being used without really being articulated, never mind understood. Big Data generally refers to the collection of vast amounts of data held in giant databases that are mined in order to make sense and use of the data. Not only can big data make sense of data that was previously unintelligible, it is argued that big data analytics can also be used to make more accurate predictions. However, the basis and justification of big data carries with it inherent logics that reflect and drive data collection in a sensor society.

The ever-increasing trove of sensor-generated data is subjected to the process of predictive analytics and the search for an unexpected correlation of data that will hopefully provide new insight. New and unexpected understanding is therefore the goal, and that requires a certain data collection logic. You have to collect everything because every piece of data may be relevant when you search for the unexpected. Everything therefore needs to be collected, recorded and kept forever because even irrelevant data may become relevant some day. The sensor society therefore re-examines the voracious scope of big data analytics and the digitised environment we are now moving towards.

This facet of the sensor society regards the role of the predictive logics of big data in the wake of always-on devices that always generate, record and collect data. We therefore add further to the self-generating cycle of sensors and data as the logics of the predictive quest demand that all data is kept for future use. The use of sensors, the data they generate and the predictive analytics process puts us on a path in which all data, about everything, is recorded forever.

Infrastructures

Sense-making infrastructures are needed to enable sensors, data and analytics to connect together. Some of these infrastructures are the wireless and telecommunication networks that facilitate the large-scale transfer of data. Databases are also an essential infrastructure.

We often think of infrastructure as something solid and monolithic, but in the sensor society infrastructure has a malleable duality. Telecommunication networks can become infrastructures of surveillance. In the sensor society, telecommunication, wireless and database networks become the infrastructures of data collection and use. Again, these infrastructures are interlinked and inseparable.

The infrastructures of collection enable an explosion of collectable data. The infrastructures of prediction enable understanding and thus give purpose to sensors. Generated data without an analytical framework to understand it is just a mountain of unintelligible data.

The voracious logic of big data requires infrastructures to enable comprehension of sensor-generated data. All four elements consequently need each other for the sensor to be able to sense and for the data to have utility. The sensor society therefore redirects us towards the hidden technological processes that make data collection, storage and processing possible. This in turn highlights the importance of understanding the relations between ownership and control of sensors and the infrastructures in which sensors operate.

All of this leads us back to where we started. How do we comprehend this vastly complex world?

The sensor society regards issues of privacy and surveillance but it is about more than that. It is instead about power and control in a digitised society and an ever-increasingly collected world.

There are many benefits to be gained from the data generated by sensors and their use in everyday devices. That, however, should not redirect us from asking the important questions of ownership and the purpose of data collection.

A collected world in which every action is stored is fundamentally different from the world we reside in now. The rhetoric of big data does little to help us negotiate what our role is in that world and to work out what that world means.

It is therefore hoped that the sensor society will enable a better visioning of the collected world that will sustain a more informed dialogue about issues of power, ownership and control in the always-on world of the sensorised and smart environment.