This post was written by Keith Dawson for UBM Tech’s community Web site All LED Lighting, sponsored by Philips Lumileds. It is archived here because the All LED Lighting site has gone dark. This material is Copyright 2013-2015 by UBM Americas.

2014-02-19

Newark's Airport Lighting Tracks You

Remember when we told you about the new street lights in Las Vegas that can be programmed to track people? That's one idea that didn't stay in Vegas.

The front page of The New York Times yesterday featured a story creepily titled At Newark Airport, the Lights Are On, and They're Watching You. It seems the airport is using a new installation of LED lighting, with controls by Sensity Systems, which we introduced here in June. The lights are part of a security and safety system encompassing video cameras and "other sensors" (the NYT was not specific). Overall, the system "collects and feeds data into software that can spot long lines, recognize license plates, and even identify suspicious activity."

The NYT's Diane Cardwell has written a scary piece laced with opinion from privacy advocates and academics who study cybersecurity. And there certainly are worries of abuse and overreach when lots of data is collected about people -- their movements, their gestures -- and kept indefinitely in private databases. The airport management did little to allay such fears when it told Cardwell: "For now... no other agencies have access to [the data], and a law enforcement agency can obtain it only through a subpoena or written request." Is that supposed to be reassuring?

Around the time we introduced Sensity, we took a measure of this community's sentiment about the wisdom of getting LED lighting controls entangled with big data and the cloud. Opinion split down the middle between those who said "better analytics are possible" in the cloud and those who felt "the security and privacy concerns are overriding."

Opting out of some tracking
Coincidentally, yesterday also brought word from Advertising Age of a website where people can go to opt out of being tracked by similar systems being deployed in malls, retail outlets, and hotels (as well as airports). The opting out is quite limited. It works only for the technology of 11 companies that have signed on, and it works only for two particular flavors of tracking via cellphone (MAC address and Bluetooth address). Several other technical methods are being deployed. And the Ad Age article says explicitly that Sensity Systems is not on the list. In fact, no company using LED lighting for mobile location analytics (MLA) is included in the opt-out.

To express a desire not to be tracked using MLA, one goes to SmartStorePrivacy.org and provides a phone's MAC address and/or Bluetooth address. That action alone would make me nervous, because some advertisers have talked about how handy it would be if they could associate such unique addresses with a person's name. The companies that have signed up for this program have promised not to try to do that.

In this time when awareness of tracking and privacy issues is at an all-time high because of revelations about the activities of the NSA and other spying shops, it is a shame to see LED lighting getting drawn into that maelstrom.

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— Keith Dawson Circle me on Google+ Follow me on Twitter Visit my LinkedIn page, Editor-in-Chief, All LED Lighting