back to article Futurologist warns of malevolent dust menace

As if botnet clients and infected USB devices weren't bad enough, security pros of the future may be faced with the menace of "smart dust" information stealing threats, if a futurologist is to be believed. Ian Pearson reckons that so-called "smart dust" will be the stuff of future IT security nightmares. Smart dust is nothing …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    Shouldn't that be...

    Roomba'd up?

    1. NoSh*tSherlock!

      Smart Dust? Gimme some!

      Man this sounds like a good new kind of nose candy!

      Maybe the man who made the prediction is using too much.

  2. Robert E A Harvey

    Title, my liege? Why marry, thy name is Moderatrix

    Oh dear. Another 'grey goo' apocalyptic. Does no-one bother to think about where these ghastly devices might possibly get the energy required to move, compute, and transmit.

    It's bollocks.

    1. MinionZero

      @"get the energy required"

      Whilst I don't believe smart dust is an issue, it has however already been shown to work via solar/light and/or "waste" energy like stray RF.

      Also the nearest practical application we have so far to smart dust is passive RFID tags, some of which are very small (and have even been marketed as smart dust by some companies). Note the word passive, as these solve the power issue providing a source of power you don't even believe exists and yet we already have billions of them in use now!

      (Hitachi mu-chip, is just 0.4 x 0.4 millimeters and their new chips (which have been called RFID powder) are just 0.05 x 0.05 millimeters so they literally do look like a very fine powder).

      Plus more experimentally we already have microscopic microphones which have been demonstrated to work.

      The basic concepts of smart dust are to put these already existing technologies together with ad hoc networking (and say some flash memory), so you get a data gathering network.

      So is it possible?, theoretically very much so, but I don't believe its a security threat and as for directly linking into hardware, thats just dreaming.

      But for the most part it is very much possible, as its based on already existing technologies simply put together. So you cannot argue the problem is powering it because billions of them already work. (So even if the building is in darkeness you simply bathe the building in power via an RF transmitter until your data gathering network has done its spying, but even that is unlikely to be needed as light and/or other RF signals can be used for a small bit of power as the amount of power needed just like passive RFID isn't that much).

      1. Willy Messerschmitt

        ANTENNAS ??

        For any antenna to be effective it must be dimensioned in the range of 10*WL to 0,1*WL, with WL being the Wavelength.

        In the air


        with c=300000000m/s (speed of light)

        and f being the frequency

        That means

        f= c/WL

        f=300000000m/s / 0.00005m == 600 GHz

        Mobiles have just 2 GHz, satcom less than 80 GHz. I doubt there is much RF power "in the office air" between 60 an 6000 GHz. So the only option you have is to put a tiny battery on the "dust" (which might be OK for a few minutes) or flood the space with your sophisticated 600GHz gear.

        And you don't get a 600GHz transistor at Radio shack...

        1. Asgard

          @Willy Messerschmitt and Antennas??

          Try this link (e.g. Microstrip antennas), it avoids the length limitations of the bog standard antenna you are talking about...

          The point is there are many antenna designs and you are only considering the most basic (either school level antenna designs or your electronics knowledge is out of date by about 40 years).

          Also add in a small photovoltaic array and add a small ultra capacitor and you get an ability to accumulate power ready for busts of activity, after all they don't have to be on continuously.

          Plus some RFID use battery assisted passive hardware, e.g.

          (While other RFID designs are simply powered by the RF they receive).

          So there are many practical ways to already overcome the limitations you assume and its getting better all the time.

        2. Captain Thyratron

          I was just about to say that.

          Between antenna gain/effective area for the frequencies a thing like that can reasonably use and the power they can reasonably transmit, the Friis transmission formula is starting to look pretty grim.

          1. Asgard

            Its not pretty grim

            All this talk about power received by an antenna is missing the point the usable range of these devices is metres not miles. Thats how these devices are practical. Even just 30 metres is enough for remote sensing. Its not ideal, but thats life.

  3. Stone Fox

    smart dust?

    As believable as porcine aviation and pyschic octopus!

    oh, wait....

    But seriously, unless he's talking nano-swarms I suspect he's just pulled something clever sounding out of his arse!

    And for a nano-swarm, to function it would need to maintain some form of swarm integrity as each individual nano-bot would only have a microscopic fraction of the swarms total memory (i.e. ability to actually store any info stolen) and a minuscule fraction of the transmitting equipment.

    Desk fans anyone?

  4. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    He must have just read "A Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge

    1. Steve Crook

      You got it right

      Frankly, I wish futureologits (misspelling deliberate) would just shut up. If they read a bit more, they'd know they're almost always just parroting ideas put into print 20 years earlier by plenty science fiction authors who have already moved on to something more interesting.


  5. Damo


    Looks like I'm going to have to track down that dumb arse keyboard vacuum my Mrs bought me years ago.

  6. Lionel Baden

    oh noes

    And when human kind Merges into a single conciousness 2 years after this they will know everything anyway !!!

    quite simple ionize the air comming into the building !!

    this guy has been reading to many science fiction books

  7. Anonymous John

    Simple solution.

    Ask Dyson to invent a smart vacuum cleaner.


    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Anonymous John

      "Ask Dyson to invent a smart vacuum cleaner.


      Don't you mean "snorted"?

      I'll get my coat now.

  8. Steve Button Silver badge

    Brain fart

    So some "futurologist" has a brain fart, and this is news... because?

    Perhaps this is not Pullman "dust" but Margery Doors "dust?"

    "Dust, anyone?"

    Is it Friday yet?

  9. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Slow glass

    Sounds like someone read Bob Shaw's "Light from other days" and somehow incorporated the concept into some kind of non-specific threat.

    (briefly: the story is about a scientist who develops a form of glass that immensely slows down the speed of light. To the point where a pane of glass can "store" an image for many years and play it back. This gets used both for scenic displays and as a surveillance device - although the explanation on how it forms a coherent image leaves a lot. Mostly the book is about the social effects of always being watched)

    1. Lionel Baden
      Thumb Up


      sounds good

      i read another book similar to this studying the social breakdown and restructuring from people being able to viw any point in time via a wormhole.

      Was a really good book but cant remeber the title for the life of me.

      1. Return To Sender
        Thumb Up

        Yup, it's a title.

        It'll be the one by Stephen Baxter & Arthur C. Clarke, with the same title, The Light of Other Days. I enjoyed that one...

    2. Simon Harris

      Slow Glass.

      'Light of Other Days' was a short story subsequently expanded into the novel 'Other Days Other Eyes' - just in case anyone wanted a bit of Bob Shaw and has problems finding the short story version.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        OT: poem Light of Other Days

        OT, just for interest: Light of Other Days is also a beautiful, melancholy 19th-century poem by Thomas Moore. cf

  10. Jon Double Nice

    Replace 'smart dust'

    with 'underpant gnomes' and this makes a whole lot more sense to me.

    1. Steven McClay

      @Replace 'smart dust'

      You, sir, owe me one keyboard. And a phone.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      FFS did you have to?

      Someone pass the nano-wipes.

  11. MinionZero
    Big Brother

    Future threats to our security and privacy...

    I think the concept of a smart dust collective (whilst interesting) is a very distant somewhat esoteric theoretical threat to our security/privacy.

    What we need to be focusing on is threats that will affect us over the next about 10 to 20 years.

    I think a far bigger issue is the near total loss of our privacy for all but the rich and powerful people in the world. The point is we don't need to worry about smart dust spyware dropped on us, to loose our security and privacy when our entire lives are increasingly already being picked over and traded by companies and governments behind our backs. So we won't have any security or privacy long before futuristic theoretical threats become an issue.

    The rich and powerful bosses of companies (and politicians) increasingly behave as if all our data belongs to them, for their exploitation, their protection, their desires for ever more wealth, and their ability to maintain their position of power over us to continue to exploit us. (But then thats their Narcissistic self interest expressed in their desire to abuse others for their own gain). All our data increasingly belongs to them. That is a far bigger threat to our security and privacy because ever more technology is increasingly not even owned by us. The technology is increasingly being twisted and abused into a way of acting like spyware by design to become a backdoor into our entire lives to leak data on us. That is our future threat and that is increasingly happening now.

    Also having the ability to opt out is increasingly not going to work. We will be forced to conform to be spied on. Societies are ruled by herding people on mass to do what the rich and powerful want ultimately for their gain leaving anyone who doesn't want to conform to their wishes with little choice but to fall in line, because the rich and powerful close off choices to force people to do what they want. After all, that is what having power over people really means. The ability to force others to conform.

    That is our future threat to our security and privacy and that is increasingly happening now. Our future threat isn't about hacking its about systemic spying by design on our lives. Spyware increasingly built directly into our lives.

    Sadly George Orwell was a very good futurologist :(

  12. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

    Does no one read comics?

    Saying the idea was first put forward in His Dark Materials is rubbish, for one the transmetropolitan series of comics by Dark horse publishing had such dust kicking around (it killed the main character in the end having been exposed to the stuff twice) not to mention Arthur C Clarke wrote a short story about such things in the 60's.

    If you want to predict our doom and gloom, please come up with something either mildly original or believable/likely then we might pay attention

    1. Combat Wombat

      *ahem* Oddball

      It didn't actually kill Spider... re read the end

      Yes, Information pollen and nano-foglets were introduced in Transmetropolitian

      Awesome series.

      Now where are my filthy assistants !?!?!

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  14. Dr Dan Holdsworth
    Thumb Up

    These are the same futurologists who failed to foresee mobile phones.

    If you look back at previous pronouncements of futurologists, then you find that absolutely none of them predicted the incredible success of mobile phones, and the SMS protocol. Videophones were and are widely assumed to be the up-and-coming tech of the future; no videophone has ever been successful, mostly because it is a lot harder to lie to someone using one.

    Like pretty much everything else the futurologists spout, this is very likely to be utter tosh. We already have highly effective nanotech systems; they're called bacteria and they're not a problem, even in ideal habitats for them if you take precautions to poison them out. Nanotech is very likely to behave in the same way; initially a bit of a problem, then no problem at all with appropriate countermeasures.

    1. Robert E A Harvey

      title title title

      My thoughts, more or less.

      Abraham Derby, the early iron master forsaw the day when all men would ride Iron Horses (nearly right) live in Iron Homes (not really, except for steel framed towers) eat off Iron furniture (only in twee coffee shops) wear Iron clothing (mind control beanie anyone?) and be buried in Iron coffins. (What? to be carried by Iron mourners, no doubt). None of his ideas was impossible, but quite a lot of them were daft.

  15. Graham Bartlett

    "The Diamond Age"

    Sorry Ian Pearson, but Neal Stephenson was there 15 years ago. According to your page, Ian, you have "been a full time futurologist since 1991", so writers of hard-SF-cum-sociology like Stephenson should have been well on your radar.

    Not only does Stephenson cover what nanotech can do (such as various nervous-system add-ons, a completely different economy based on information, or the possibility of mass-murder of entire ethnic groups), but he also covers solutions to some of its problems (such as a defense-in-depth screen strategy for stopping killer nanosites getting through).

    Ironically it's not actually a very good read. But if you have even the slightest interest in nanotech and you haven't read it, it's roughly the equivalent of being interested in theology and not having read the Bible.

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

  17. MontyPole

    Too Late

    "Tiny specks of smart dust dropped through ventilation grills on office equipment will allow interception of data before it even gets to an encryption device. Slightly ‘cleverer’ smart dust could even allow documents to be subtly altered while they are being printed."

    Surely every day 'stupid' dust in the right place can do these things already.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Someone’s been playing Deus Ex - Invisible War.


    Futurologists = Sci-Fi author wannabes without writing ability.

    Beer, because I too can predict the future.

  19. NB


    more like 'futurLOLogist' amirite?

  20. Big Irish Dave

    Never Say Never

    Work of fiction by Raymond Khoury- The Sign is all about smart dust...

  21. Anonymous Coward


    I bet that clueless git got paid more by fujitsu than I do, then again I know what I'm doing so I don't deserve decent pay

    Even Gillian McKeith would have come out with less shit than that.

  22. Anonymous Coward


    Futurologists have a dismal track record, and work on the same principle as "cold reading" used by illusionists to "mind read" an audience. In cold reading, you spout an endless stream of things and some small percentage match some audience member who self filters the matches. Futurologists, such as Ray Kurzweil, spew an endless stream of ideas, many obvious, and years later cherry pick the tiny percentage that, often with a stretch, "came true" to some extent.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      I'm still waiting

      For the robot infested life of leisure they promised me.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Stop do financial advisors

      Typically, they spout predictions ad nauseum, then recall only those that came true.

      Better, most of the few investment funds that claim 5 consecutive years of "beating the market" likely, are just statistical artifacts - the expected outliers in the normal distribution of the many existing funds (with a mean of break-even), all of which could be picking their investment targets and timing on a random basis, and still produce a handful with 5 consecutive plus years. Sorting the gurus from the chaff in that lot takes deeper investigation.

  23. stupormundi


    I, too, have read the diamond age.

    Why has nobody noticed yet that I'm a FUTUROLOGIST? Why is nobody interviewing me about stuff?? So unfair!


  24. Tim Bergel

    Not worth worrying about

    a) because it's probably impossible due to power requirements

    b) certainly not any time Real Soon Now

    c) if we can ever make smart spyware dust, then we can also make smart dust to detect & remove it - which will start off a happy little arms race...

  25. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    Why so futuristic?

    OK, design a very small lump of semiconductor that includes:

    1. Power gathering components, leaching from leaked magnetic fields around power cables

    2. Data transmission components of low power, both consumption and transmission

    3. Some form of information gathering components

    4. A bit of processing power and a small amount of memory

    Arrange these so that they can form a collaborative self healing network that will pass information from one to another.

    Scatter them in a building.

    Arrange to have a listening point outside (or even inside) the building using a WAN network technology such as 3G to pass the information on.

    Three of the four requirements are already met by RFID tags. The only one missing is the data gathering. The collaborative, self healing network technology is already around, at least in principal (think OLPC, and I'm sure there was a kids device that used to pass messages in an informal ad-hoc network to other devices in range).

    The thing that needs to be improved is the scale. RFID tags are too big currently, and power consumption is still too high, and gathering it still needs too large an antenna to pick up the power.

    But these are exactly the problems that more sophisticated technology can fix! If, as predicted, there could be high efficiency wireless LED lighting using transmitted power, which is a technology being worked on at the moment (first link found from Google, there are others, there could be ample power around for the smart dust. If the dust particles are mere centimetres apart, the amount of power needed to transmit and receive information would be minimal. And making the devices smaller using the level of mask shrinkage from the current memory and processor programs will make the devices smaller and lower power.

    Disguise the devices as variously skin flakes, human hairs (think the antenna), bugs, biscuit crumbs, scraps of paper, sandwich wrappers, vending machine cups (Hmmm, thermal power!), all of which are larger than dust, and mainly unnoticeable (turn your keyboard over and shake it to see what is there), and Bob's your Uncle (or in my case, Bill's my Uncle).

    The only problem then remaining would the the data gathering. I'll leave that as a problem for others.

    If I am the first combining these, and it is enough for a patent application, I claim this as Prior Art!

    1. Willy Messerschmitt


      "Arrange to have a listening point outside (or even inside) the building using a WAN network technology such as 3G to pass the information on."

      WL=c/f== 300000000m/s / 2000000000Hz == 0,15m

      That means an effective antenna must be between 1.5 and 150cms. Hint: look at the size of your cellphone. They don't shrink the antenna to below 2cms. (about one inch for the Land Of The Merkins People)

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge


        I was not suggesting 3G for the smart dust, just the listening point that would receive whatever frequency the dust was using, and re-transmit using 3G. The listening point would not have to be dust-sized, just hidden, and possibly outside of the building.

        I admit small antenna==high frequencies, and high frequencies generally mean high power, but I'm not talking about driving a signal 10's of metres, merely to the next smart dust speck, and then to the next (get it, collaborative networking).

        Please actually read what I wrote, because although I am not a chip designer, or a transmission specialist, I believe that I have a reasonable grounding in electronics (it being part of my degree) and computing (ditto), not that you would know that.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Antenna Fail? Je quoi-que non!

        So, about 2cm... which is about the length of a common human hair one might find on the floor, the desk, under the monitor/keyboard/phone/etc?

        OP already postulated that the antenna could be "disguised" as hair like those we shed by the tens or hundreds (Rogain?!) every day. Depending the tech, perhaps an artificial protein similar to that found in hair could, in fact, be the antenna.

        Of course, this would be far more noticable in a clean room environment as opposed to the normal government office with the 60's carpets and less than immaculate desk hygiene.

  26. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    Nit-picking pedantry

    "it was hard Sci-Fi giant Arthur C Clarke who first came up with idea of geostationary satellites."

    1) Clarke didn't come up with the idea of geostationary satellites, that was first published when he was 11. He did come up with the idea of using them for relaying telecommunications.

    2) He wasn't a hard SF giant at the time he published his idea, as he his first professional sale of an SF story was a year later.

  27. g00p

    Argh, not again..

    "just off to the dianetics clinic darling, won't be long, got covered in smart dust at work again"

  28. Grubby
    Thumb Up

    Smart dust isn't a problem for IT

    It's the big dumb things that us IT that are the problem

  29. Arweet

    Sounds like those futurologists...

    have been snorting too much modafinil.

  30. vonsped

    Neal Stephenson, covered this in 1995

  31. David McMahon

    Where do I..

    Get a job predicting Smart-Dust???

    I predict bigger hard drives, faster processors, the next version of Windows to look better, boring stuff like that.

  32. Gyory

    deja vu

    Stanislav Lem: Peace on Earth, cca 1965

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Already out in book form ...

    Book is "Prey" by Michael Crichton, storyline is nanotechnology using e-coli bacteria to provide power, using software that emulates natural group-dynamics like ants and termites to solve problems ... then the 'dust' gets out of the lab ...

  34. Captain Thyratron

    Let's try to design one!

    I'm going to be really nice and suppose that the antennas on these things have an effective area of a millimeter squared. They're dust, after all, and even that's pretty big for dust; perhaps most of the size is the antenna, or else it isn't going to make very good dust. It's got to be tiny enough to float around like dust, so I'll just suppose that the antenna is this fluffy conductive thing rather larger than the actual device. Also, let's hope that that size is still small enough for the things to be fairly inconspicuous. Let's see what happens when we try to transmit a signal over a distance of ten centimeters, which is pretty reasonable if we consider that these things might rely on one another à la Zigbee for getting information around, thereby compensating for each robot's short range; additionally, let's suppose that, somehow, by virtue of some damned incredible energy source, these little specks of dust are capable of transmitting a microwatt of power; bear in mind that the little dust robot has to keep this up at least for a few hours to be useful. I think these specifications and conditions are pretty generous, and perhaps overoptimistic beyond what reality can justify. Nonetheless, bear with me.

    Antenna gain G is related to effective area A_eff by

    G = \frac{4 \pi}{\lambda^2} A_eff

    Let's suppose that the wavelength is about as big as the antenna. This is pretty generous, of course--most hams make do with less, and generally half a wavelength or even less is just fine. Put in the numbers, then, using the assumed effective area, and the gain you get is four pi. I wish to note that I have made radio contacts halfway across North America with quite less antenna gain than that, so I don't think it's such a terrible number. For the record, the wavelength here corresponds to a frequency of about three terahertz. Well, this is the future, so let's pretend that this kind of thing is cheap to make on a scale of less than a millimeter--Stranger things have happened. Remember, most of the size is some bizarre, lightweight antenna, or the stuff will be more like dirt than dust and won't disperse well.

    Well, let's plug this all into the Friis transmission formula, which relates received power to transmitted power:

    \frac{P_r}{P_t} = G_t G_r \left( \frac{\lambda}{4 \pi R} \right)^2

    P is power, G is gain, R is distance (ten centimeters), and the subscripts t and r stand for transmitted and received, respectively. I like working in MKS units, so that's what you're going to get.

    The answer we get is

    \frac{P_r}{P_t} = 1 x 10^{-4}

    This is a dimensionless number, since it's watts divided by watts. Bearing in mind that the transmitted power is one microwatt--remember, this is a speck of dust--the received power is

    P_r = P_t (1 X 10^{-4}) = 1 X 10^{-10} W

    or one hundred picowatts. This is reasonable for a good receiver to pick up--provided, of course, that we really can get a dust speck to transmit a microwatt of power for a long enough time to be useful.

    So far, thanks to some rather generous handwaving on my part, the little dust robots appear to be theoretically viable, albeit not by a very comfortable margin and entirely depending on some things that might not be true. However, anyone with a background in electrical engineering is likely to point out that I have entirely neglected noise, polarization, and probability of bit error. In a perfectly noise-free environment, the described dust-robots might be able to work, provided that the necessary computing hardware is willing to share that dust speck with a one-microwatt transmitter and the associated power source; if you wish to dismiss this notion as fantasy, I won't be angry. You're probably right. By comparison, today's absolutely most efficient microcontrollers manage to consume ten or twenty times that in sleep mode. Now, what happens when we add a hundred-milliwatt jamming source to the room, plus whatever noise floor you'd get if terahertz-range transmitters were so common that you could fit one in a speck of dust? Some futuristic terahertz-range analogue of a really zippy wireless access point could do a number on the poor things. Also, an engineer of any sort will point out that I have said nothing of what these things might cost. Suddenly, the dust robots have plummeted from their lofty perch of theoretical viability and fallen unceremoniously into the filthy gutter of lousy ideas that looked good in theory.

    If I've made any errors in arithmetic, let me know. I must warn that my memory of antenna theory is a little rusty and that I've not eaten breakfast today, so it's entirely possible that I made some terrible three-orders-of-magnitude mistake somewhere. However, let's bear in mind that there are already much better ways to spy on people. For example, it has been demonstrated that signals produced by keyboards allow a nearby malicious party with a cheap antenna to recover keystrokes. See here, for example:

    No silly dust required.

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ian Pearson?

    Didn't he used to be paid by [1] BT (arrived 1991, departed a year or two ago)?

    What does he think the future holds for BT?

    DId he foresee losing his job at BT?

    [1] "work at BT" doesn't seem appropriate for someone producing the kind of output he does/did.

  36. spot

    Ultrasound alternative to radio

    - in that ultrasound doesn't need an antenna.

    Nobody's yet mentioned "The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" by Neal Stephenson as a source for communicative nanotechnology.

  37. pershi

    Geostationarxy satellite...

    I think there is a mistake in this article. A. C. Clarke was not the one who first came up with the idea of geostationary satellites. At least Herman Potocnik (Herman Noordung) had calculated geostationary orbit and described geostationary satellites way before Clarke.

    Regards, p

  38. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    mobile phone was predicted

    "If you look back at previous pronouncements of futurologists, then you find that absolutely none of them predicted the incredible success of mobile phones, and the SMS protocol."

    Actually I read an article or two from sometime around the 1930s where futurists predicted precisely a mobile communicator which could send voice and text between them, and assumed they may take as long as the 1980s to come out.

    This doesn't refute the GIST of your point, it's hard to get a useful idea of the future based on looking at what present futurologists predict.... but i don't think there's ANY current technology that "absolutely none" of them predicted. There are, on the other hand, many many technologies they predicted that never came to pass.. flying cars, extensive skyways, regularly scheduled supersonic flights between cities, etc. being the high profile stuff.

  39. Steve Evans

    Yeah right...

    Smart dust? Some one has definitely been sniffing too much space dust.

    You'd be better off filling the air conditioning system with something conductive like carbon dust. Sure it can't wander into the right part of a circuit and start sniffing packets and broadcasting them back over radio (then again, what can?!), but it will cause chaos.

  40. Bobster

    Sod the dust...

    Where's my bloody flying car?

  41. Anonymous Coward


    seems like the "Fut" needs dropping from Futurologist, because the guy is taking the piss if he thinks I'm going to believe this ;)

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