Sensors and Sensibilities

57 Pages Posted: 26 Sep 2006

See all articles by Kevin Werbach

Kevin Werbach

University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, Legal Studies & Business Ethics Department


We live in a world of increasingly universal connectivity. Yet our legal system presumes that people are isolated from one another. In a diverse array of doctrinal areas, law encodes the assumption that direct tracking of individual activities is the exception, rather than the rule. With the diffusion of new technologies, this expectation will be undermined.

A profusion of networked sensors will pose novel challenges for many areas of the law. Hundreds of millions of camera-enabled mobile phones and networked webcams are already in the hands of individuals throughout the world. Billions of wireless radio-frequency identification tags will soon be deployed. Location-sensing capabilities will be built into a growing range of equipment. Intelligent handheld digital devices will turn every individual into a networked information gathering and dissemination point. Inadvertent private actions, rather than conscious government surveillance, will increasingly dominate the tracking and monitoring of the physical world and its inhabitants.

A common initial response will be to ban or restrict the technologies that threaten settled expectations. Yet the sensors will not be stopped so easily. In the end, social norms will define the canvas upon which law operates to regulate information exchanges. Against that backdrop, law will gradually evolve to accommodate changed circumstances. The best way to avoid conflicts and uncertainties along the way will be to surface the hidden assumptions that technology is calling into question.

Keywords: technology, sensors, privacy, social norms, cameraphones, RFID

Suggested Citation

Werbach, Kevin, Sensors and Sensibilities. Cardozo Law Review, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Kevin Werbach (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, Legal Studies & Business Ethics Department ( email )

3730 Walnut Street
Suite 600
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States
215-898-1222 (Phone)

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