Viewpoints

Blinded by the light: Governments might be the buyers, but it’s privacy that’s paying the price

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On a recent flight to Oklahoma City, somewhere between Arkansas and the posture- and patio-improvement options in Sky Mall, I happened upon a story in Delta’s Sky magazine about a state-of-the-art lighting system that had just been installed at Newark Liberty International airport.

These lights? Are AWESOME.

Environmentally friendly LEDs, they do more than just light the lounge and save the planet – they include sensors which can be used to monitor room temperature, air quality, and could even help you locate a parking place! With the touch of a button, these sensors communicate with smart technologies to adjust network operations to keep you comfy and cared for, no matter where you go. Oh – and they DO track you wherever you go.

That’s right, now appearing in Newark, N.J. – surveillance lighting! Thanks to these little wonders from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Sensity, officials with Newark Liberty can now watch as you grab those impulse Ho Hos and then report that information to data collectors, which monitor for “security, asset management and retail analytics.”

And you thought the preflight frisking was invasive!

Now I know what you’re thinking – surveillance in an airport? Probably smart. Reduces risk. Good for everyone, right? I disagree. Because this technology is not just being used for airport security (or to report your age, sex and race to Hostess for Ho Ho “retail analytics”). No, friends, this technology is being marketed to the public sector at large.

From the Sensity website: “Cities and towns everywhere tell us they’re looking for ways to lower their energy costs and at the same time provide services more efficiently,” said Jim Davis, president of Chevron Energy Solutions, a Sensity partner targeting municipals for Light Sensory Network deployments. “Sensity offers a way for cities to both cut their energy use and build an innovative information network to make their services more efficient, and we are excited about the opportunity to explore these possibilities together.”

That’s right. This company (and others like it) is offering governments everywhere the opportunity to gather analytics about your whereabouts, your purchases and your behaviors – information which can be logged and sold for profit. And while a company is within its rights to sell its products, the question remains - is it in the citizen’s best interest for the government to buy those products?

Consider: “LED light fixtures … can also contain sensors that pick up information from customers’ smartphones. As a result, retail shopping malls and individual stores can effortlessly measure, monitor, and analyze aggregate information about customer traffic … This list is just the beginning.”

In our Patriot Act, post-Snowden, drones-are-cool world, we know the government reads our emails, listens to our phone calls, and wants to watch us as we drive down the street. Hell, the feds even tapped Google for search histories to get a better idea of what we’re thinking and where our loyalties lie.

But despite the invasive – and potentially illegal – nature of these practices, we, the general populace, continue to express a laissez faire attitude to the loss of our privacy rights. At first, these infractions were allowed under the auspices of security. But now, those same cameras that were touted as protectors of the peace are being used for profit. And, as both government leaders and citizens, you are in the unique position to be both perpetrator and victim...

We pay lip service to a life free of government interference. We balk at government-enforced minimum wage hikes, or rail against government’s role in the abortion debate, or whether or not government has the right to regulate guns or drugs or marriage or health care.

But while we continue to scream “Stay off my lawn!” at government entities, like Privacy Rights Bipolars, we paradoxically and simultaneously welcome government intrusion into our very homes. We’ve embraced the takeover of our private lives as if it’s not only inevitable, but preferable. As if the possibility of catching a criminal is somehow an acceptable reason to allow governments themselves to participate in potentially criminal activity.

It’s madness.

And that madness is now on the internet, being marketed to governments in the form of environmentally friendly surveillance lights.

So go ahead! Google it! Buy some today! But be warned – anything you buy online may or may not end up in a government database. Because what you buy? Is no longer just your business. It’s big business.

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What's Viewpoints?

It features the Editor's Viewpoints and contributed commentaries.

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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