Technology in LED Smart Lights Raises Privacy Concerns
CBS NEWS / June 30, 2014, 6:43 AM
While more people and places are switching to energy-saving LED light bulbs, a California company has found a way to turn them into smart networks that can collect and feed data. However, the new technological opportunities are also raising privacy concerns, reports CBS News' Bill Whitaker.
For example, should you find yourself in terminal "B" at Newark airport, look up. Those aren't just new lights. They're smart lights -- a sophisticated array of LED fixtures with built-in sensors and cameras connected over a wireless network. They monitor security and the flow of foot traffic.
"Newark's primarily interested in energy saving," said Hugh Martin, president of Sensity, the Silicon Valley company that developed the smart lights at Newark and also a parking garage in San Jose.
"This week we saved $3,500 -- over $182,000 a year, in energy saved just from this," Martin said.
Saving money isn't the only reason the bulbs are in the spotlight.
"There's a motion sensor in each individual light," he said.
Across the globe, cities are phasing out old, energy-wasting incandescent and sodium bulbs and replacing them with LEDs, which can act as a power hub that can be tailored for high-tech add-ons. That's the "smart" part.
They're also 90 percent more efficient, longer lasting and burning much brighter.
There are about 4 billion outside lights in the world today. Imagine all of those lights connected in one global network.
A building in Silicon Valley is one of the few places in the country where a smart light network has been installed. They're used primarily for security. The 40 lampposts in the parking lot holds 83 LED lights, and they're connected to seven cameras in a seamless grid that tracks and records people's moves.
"We do use the license plate recognition, and we also can detect people," said Kevin Kirk, chief engineer for the Shorenstein Company, which owns the building.
The company plans to install smart lights at its properties across the country.
"Everything goes up into the cloud, so we can access everything from anywhere. The future is limitless for this technology," Kirk said.
The smart light network has the ability to spot an unattended bag at an airport and alert security, show drivers to empty parking spaces and alert shoppers of sales as they walk past retailers. Existing LED lights can be retro-fitted with sensors to monitor pollution, measure snowfall and sniff out a dirty bomb before it can spew radiation.
Martin said there is no end to the kind of information you could gather.
And therein lies a problem. In the future, the smart network could track everyplace we go, everything we buy, everything we do, all the time.
"Wouldn't at least the parents of kids at a school feel better if they knew there was an analytic that looked for objects that could be guns on people that are coming into the school? Wouldn't that be a good thing," Martin said.
"We're all both benefiting and at risk from this," said Dr. Linton Wells, who is with the National Defense University in Washington.
He said technology is evolving faster than our policies to control it.
"I think the onus has to be on the citizen. It's your information that's at risk out there," Wells said.
While some believe technology may be getting ahead of us, others see it as necessary.
"If we don't have the technology, we won't confront the issues and we won't figure out the right way," Martin said.
With a smart light network, the future can be bright -- if we're smart about how we use it.