The lights are on... and they are watching

Feb 23 2014, 13:38 IST
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Visitors 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,
SummaryThere is an expanding market for light fixtures capable of capturing and analysing vast amounts of data about the habits of ordinary citizens.

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 Authority’s, 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

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