Tag Archives: Smart City

Privacy Advocates Express Fears About Next Generation Light Bulbs

The American Civil Liberties Union is warning about the potential dangers of “Smart-City” projects that include the use of LED light bulbs and technology that could be used to monitor innocent civilians.

The New York Times reports that a number of companies are investing in Smart-Grid LEDs as major cities prepare to convert their public lighting systems:

“Using a combination of LEDs and big data technology, public lighting is the potential backbone of a system that could use billions of fixtures to collect data about traffic congestion at an intersection or a consumer walking down the cereal aisle, to name just a couple of applications.

Sensity Systems, a small start-up that builds and manages smart-lighting networks, is announcing on Monday that it has attracted money and partnerships from a group of major businesses, including Simon Property Group, the leading mall developer; General Electric; Cisco; and Acuity Brands, a leading maker of LED lighting.”

The Times goes on to say that Sensity has already installed its systems in Newark; Bangalore, India; Adelaide, Australia; and Albertslund, a Copenhagen suburb. The lights can be outfitted with sensors that can detect a range of activities, including motion, traffic congestion, pollutants, gunshots or, locate a particular shopper at a store.

Despite the perceived benefits of LED bulbs, the technology can be turned into a tool for surveillance. The ACLU stated that they strongly oppose “the creation of infrastructures for ubiquitous mass surveillance including the widespread deployment of lightbulb spying technology.Given the limited use of the product as a lighting device and the broad scope of its tracking and surveillance features, what this product really appears to be is a mass surveillance device being disguised as an LED light bulb.”

The spread of surveillance light bulbs is not a new phenomenon, however. Earlier this year TruthInMedia reported that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an expansion to a pilot program that uses “gun shot detector” microphones as part of an ongoing effort to more efficiently respond to crime.

Mayor De Blasio announced the expansion at a press conference at New York Police Department headquarters. The program will cost $1.5 million to install 300 listening devices around the precincts with the highest rates of gun violence. The devices are already live in the Bronx and should be operational in Brooklyn soon.  The microphones are attached to lamp posts and utility poles and connected through a wireless network called ShotSpotter. New York City is the latest to join more than sixty cities with the technology, including Oakland; San Francisco; Washington, DC; and Milwaukee police.

 The ShotSpotter program records noises believed to be gun shots and then relays the date, time, location, and a recording to police officers. ShotSpotter sensors are connected to thousands of cameras as part of New York City’s Domain Awareness System.

Critics believe the devices will surreptitiously record innocent individuals conversations. It has already been shown that the devices can record conversations of those walking in range of the microphones. In 2014 CBS San Francisco reported that the Oakland Police Department was able to record a dying man’s last words using the ShotSpotter system. Oakland Privacy Working Group lawyer Brian Hofer told CBS that the OPD originally denied the ShotSpotter’s ability to record voices. A similar situation took place in New Bedford, Mass., and proved that the devices do invade privacy.

What are your thoughts? Do the benefits outweigh the dangers? Can we trust the government to use these tools for benevolent purposes?