Nanotechnology Regulation

Nanotechnology applications chart

Last week I did not post as I was preparing to chair a session at a plenary for the European Commission in Brussels. Full details are available here, but today I would like to pose a few issues that were raised during the event.

This is not the first time I have spoken at conferences about nanotechnology regulation, nor is it my first Technology bloggers post on the matter. Readers might like to take a look at these posts going back to 2012.

But as an overview my interest is in regulation. And the problems raised 3 years ago are ever more pressing. Nano products are everywhere (see the diagram above, and that is old), they do not have to be labeled, and there are still questions about health and regulation that have never been answered.

Last week’s topic was the Responsible Nano Code, a document drawn up to offer guidance to nanotechnology producers as a guide. It is voluntary, has no legal standing (I will come on to that though) and is a set of principles rather than a regulatory code.

The code can be freely downloaded here.

The principles address issues such as Director Board accountability and involvement, stakeholder involvement, worker health and safety, public health, safety and environmental risks, wider social, health, environmental and ethical implications and impacts, engaging with business partners and transparency and disclosure. And if you read the code you find nothing that anyone wouldn’t agree with.

The preparation was a serious endeavour too, it took several years to come to its final draft, and involved a lot of people. Founders included the Royal Society, Nanotechnologies Industries Association, Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network and Insight Investment.

Upon completion the code was presented across the world. In the USA however several problems were seen due to the nature of the law there. One problem is the risk of being sued. If a company states that they follow a code they become liable to legal action if someone can demonstrate that they did not in fact follow some aspect of the code. So companies are reluctant to state that they follow a code unless it is mandatory.

Also if a code is followed by a group of companies, it becomes the benchmark, so all companies are then judged according to that code, even if they do not participate. So implementation carries some really serious consequences.

In the US, nanomaterials are regulated in the same way as any other materials, and not specifically as nano, which to some seems problematic. Health issues have been raised (see my first nano post through the link above) and never resolved. And we must bear in mind that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of products in all sectors. In order to follow through on the pledges in the code, producers would have to educate and look after not only their own workers, but anyone who deals with these products throughout their entire lifespan. This includes, transport workers, salespeople, shopkeepers, waste collectors and disposal workers, end users, the list goes on.

And if there is a need for regulation, who is going to write it? I can’t write it, so do we need an expert? But can we get a nanotechnology expert who is probably positive about the undoubted advantages of pursuing a technology to write the regulations? Will they be balanced? Or should we ask a member of Greenpeace, or anyone else who might hold serious doubts about the processes and politics involved?

These are open questions, and although I cannot myself offer any answers it is something that we can and should all discuss. And it makes for an interesting line of work!

Bacteria, Fungus and Decomposition (and growing new materials)

Maurizio

Bacteria, fungus and decomposition.

Doesn’t sound like a great start for a technology blog. But last week I was fortunate to visit a lab in Utrecht University where rather unsurprisingly I learned a lot about decomposition, fungus and how to grow innovative new materials.

A young Italian designer runs the lab, this is him above, working on the border between art and biology. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the “Officina Corpuscoli” in Amsterdam (2010), whose goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.

Materials

The lab is the point of departure. Here he showed me different materials with different properties, all grown from fungi. Some is like plastic, can be transparent and in sheet form, and others look and feel a bit like skin, some looks like polystyrene.

Grown Pellet

A Grown Pellet

The choice of materials is central to the idea of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. Maurizio wanted to raise this issue for discussion, and so he began his fungus interest.

For the designer the beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. He told me that fungi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. He is interested in its role as re-cycler of biological materials.

Synthetic Biology

And the holy grail: the System Synthetics project, turning plastic waste into energy. Maurizio was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos, to create a microorganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline (very much a work in progress, whose aim is to involve a wider public in the synthetic biology debate).

other forms

other forms

I would like to add that Maurizio is part of an informal network of “fungicites”, here find an article of a start up in the USA that is producing bricks from bacteria, cutting out the clay and baking process and making it a much more sustainable product.

Read more about Maurizio here, including photos and an interview.

What’s in Your Computer (and phone, and WiFi)?

gates

Lenovo

This week the news is full of Lenovo, a computer manufacturer that has been selling machines that they have already fitted with what some call Malware or just Adware. Magic in the machine indeed!

The mal/adware in question is made by a company called “Superfish.” The software is essentially an Internet browser add-on that injects ads onto websites you visit. Details here.

Besides taking up space in your computer, the add-on is also dangerous because it undermines basic computer security protocols.

That’s because it tampers with a widely-used system of official website certificates. That makes it hard for your computer to recognize a fake bank website. This means that you are more likely to give all of your personal data away, let nasty things into your computer, and allow people to monitor your use.

No good I hear you say, and all so that they can feed you adverts while you are browsing.

Hidden Extras?

But this news does bring up another question, what else is in the computer? What else is it programmed to do? The simple answer is that I and probably most of you do not know. We have bought a machine that does the things we want it to do, but who knows what else?

Now as I eat my breakfast, I like to read the ingredients on the side of the packet. It is good for language skills as it is usually in several languages. But can I do this with my computer? You don’t get much in the way of documentation with a $400 laptop. Certainly not considering what is inside it.

So the computer company in question have disabled something at their end and the problem is resolved. But if they tell you that they fixed the problem are you going to believe them? After they did something that put your computer and everything saved on it at risk? Or should you put a new operating system on the new machine, wipe the hard drive and start again?

Why do we trust these manufacturers when they consistently do things that are not in our interest? WiFi providers that con your computer into trusting fake certificates so that they can block certain sites (and read your mail or follow your searches)? Samsung that record your voice through your smart TV and send it non encrypted over the Internet to unnamed third parties, social media sites and search engines that collect your data, mobile phone companies that map your every movement, the list goes on.

So if you cannot trust wifi, or computer manufacturers, or Google, or Facebook, or Samsung to treat our data securely and correctly, who can you trust? And more to the point why are we giving them our lives to play with?

Mind Your Language in front of the TV

Samsung-F8500-plasma-review-smart-tv

Privacy

I have a friend who puts tape over the webcam on his laptop while he is working, because he believes that people can hack into his computer and watch what he is doing. I must admit I thought it was a bit strange at first, but then hunting information I discovered that it was not only possible, but a well known crime involving organized gangs.

The UK recently took down a Russian website that was showing live webcam, taken without the knowledge of the people that were taking the footage. The incident not only involved security cameras, but all types of baby monitors and practically anything that has a camera and transmits data wirelessly.

Check out this article here.

Smart TV

But this is small fry really when you read this week’s news. A large TV manufacturer which has a product that recognizes voice controls seems to have been transmitting everything said in front of the TV to a third party.

They do this so that said third party can sieve through the words used to see if a command has been given. But there are many unanswered questions. Who is the third party? What are they doing with my data? Is it secure? The list goes on.

But said company are not trying to hide what they are doing:

Voice Recognition

You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands.

If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, ******* may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

I am not sure that everyone who buys a TV of this type reads the Global Privacy Policy – SmartTV Supplement however, and they might be giving away a lot more than they would like to without knowing.

The BBC carries an article about this news with all of the names included. I think it is probably true though that if one company do it, then so do all the others.