The lights are on... and they are watching

Written by New York Times | Updated: Feb 23 2014, 19:08pm hrs
Newark Liberty International AirportVisitors to Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey may notice the bright, clean lighting that now blankets the cavernous interior,
Visitors to Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey may notice the bright, clean lighting that now blankets the cavernous interior, courtesy of 171 recently installed LED fixtures. But they probably will not realise that the light fixtures are the backbone of a system that is watching them.

Using an array of sensors and eight video cameras around the terminal, the light fixtures are part of a new wireless network that collects and feeds data into software that can spot long lines, recognise license plates and even identify suspicious activity, sending alerts to the appropriate staff.

The project is still in its early stages, but executives with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, are already talking about expanding it to other terminals and buildings.

To customers like the Port Authority, the systems hold the promise of better management of security as well as energy, traffic and people. But they also raise the spectre of technology racing ahead of the ability to harness it, running risks of invading privacy and mismanaging information, privacy advocates say.

Fred H Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, described the potential for misuse as terrifying.

What began as a way to help governments and businesses save energy by automatically turning lights on and off has become an expanding market for lights, sensors and software capable of capturing and analysing vast amounts of data about the habits of ordinary citizens.

The light fixtures are outfitted with special chips and connect to sensors, cameras and one another over a wireless network. Data that is collected say, a particular car pulling up to the terminal can then be mined and analysed for a broad range of applications. Systems like the Port Authoritys, developed by a company called Sensity Systems, could soon be more widely available. Under a recent agreement, Amerlux, a leading lighting manufacturer, will start using the technology in its LED fixtures. Other companies, including giants like Cisco Systems and Philips, are racing to grab a share of that market.

Las Vegas is testing a street lighting system that can broadcast sound, and plans to use it mainly to control lighting and play music or to issue security alerts at a pedestrian mall.

Copenhagen, Denmark, is installing 20,000 street lamps as part of a system that could eventually control traffic, monitor carbon dioxide levels and detect when garbage cans are full. Other government agencies and businesses have begun replacing thousands of lighting fixtures with LEDs, mainly to cut costs.

Some cities have more targeted sensors, like the ShotSpotter gunshot location system in use by more than 70 American cities, including Boston, Milwaukee and San Francisco. But the Sensity network can bring them together through existing light fixtures.

The system could, once software is developed, also make shopping more convenient a potential boon for malls losing business to the Internet. Sensing a shopper pulling into a parking lot, the system could send an alert to a smartphone, showing empty spaces, or a coupon.

We see outdoor lighting as the perfect infrastructure to build a brand-new network, said Hugh Martin, Sensitys chief executive. We felt what youd want to use this network for is to gather information about people and the planet.

But that is precisely what worries privacy advocates.

There are some people in the commercial space who say, Oh, big data well, lets collect everything, keep it around forever, well pay for somebody to think about security later, said Justin Brookman, who studies consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. The question is whether we want to have some sort of policy framework in place to limit that.

Even those developing the technology acknowledge the concerns. Im not saying that I know the exact balance point, but there is a lot of value, I think, if we do it right, to this information, Martin said, whether that value is heightening security or helping stores compete with Amazon.

His company has a board that includes Heather Zichal, President Barack Obamas former energy and climate change adviser, and former Republican Dick Gephardt to help figure out the implications of the technology.

I just think we need to be very thoughtful about the positives and the negatives, Martin said. He added that the Sensity network is encrypted and super-secure.

In Las Vegas, officials say they are not interested in using the video and audio surveillance capabilities of the system they are testing, called Intellistreets, and are instead looking at the use of audio broadcasting to enhance ambience and safety in public areas.

In Copenhagen, the emphasis is on efficiency, said Eric Dresselhuys, an executive vice president of Silver Spring Networks, which designed the network to connect that system. Executives say the potential for the advanced lighting is nearly boundless.

No one really wanted the smartphone 20 years ago because they didnt know they could have it, said Fred Maxik, founder and chief technology officer of Lighting Science Group, which manufactures LEDs. And I think the same is true of lighting today: No one knows what lighting is going to be capable of.