Spy lights could make us the bad guys

Lighting professionals and those with responsibility for lighting have reason to feel good about themselves. We are, after all, the bringers of light, illuminating the spaces we inhabit, chasing the dark. We are the good guys.
But like the original ‘bringer of light’, Lucifer, are we destined to lose our angelic status, to become the fallen due to greed and envy? Are we set to become the gimp of Big Data, the eyes and ears of Mass Surveillance?

You see, we have something that the Big Data guys want: ubiquity. Lights are almost everywhere people are. In every shop, every office, along every street. Lighting is a mass network of powered points, wherever people are gathered. A ready-made infrastructure that’s being coveted by those with less-than-altruistic intent. Lights, especially LED lights, have the potential to become the spies in the sky, and the spymasters know it. It’s no pipe vision: lighting is today taking on extracurricular roles in real-world applications.

 Lighting is a ready-made surveillance infrastructure, coveted by those with less-than-altruistic intent”

For instance, Bexley Business Academy in Kent has become one of the first installations in the world of so-called Li-Fi, Wi-Fi delivered by the visible light of LED fittings. The high-frequency, digital nature of LEDs means they lend themselves perfectly to this form of delivery.

At Newark Airport in New Jersey, LED luminaires are part of a pioneering wireless network that can monitor the movement of people and vehicles, the use of parking spaces and the build-up of queues. It’s claimed it can even identify ‘suspicious activity’ and send alerts to security staff.

The luminaires conta­­­­­­in custom chips and are connected to sensors, cameras and one another over a wireless network. As well as merely illuminating Terminal B at Newark, the lighting collects and feeds an enormous amount of data into software, which in turn can ‘mine’ this data to detect patterns. 

The technology, created by US firm Sensity Systems, is now being licensed to luminaire manufacturers, raising the prospect that installations like Newark may become commonplace – even the norm – in the future.

Back in Europe, the industry’s biggest manufacturer is also practising technological alchemy by blending LED lighting, data collection and management to another purpose: marketing. At the EuroShop exhibition in Düsseldorf, Philips unveiled an intelligent LED in-store lighting system for retail applications that communicates location-based information to shoppers via a smartphone app.

The idea is that the lighting uses the app to send special offers and information to the shopper, relevant to their location in the store. 

In Copenhagen, there are plans for a new network of LED streetlights to harvest data that will in turn help identify traffic build-up and even inform waste authorities when rubbish bins need collecting. Installations and applications like these raise issues of privacy and the use of the data. These lights are indeed spying on us; sometimes we don’t know it and sometimes we’re complicit in it. Mostly they have benign intent such as cutting queues and identifying parking spaces, or they’re just trying to sell us stuff.

But as we all now know, data can be mismanaged and, at worst, end up the hands of those who would exploit it for malicious purpose.

Therefore it’s easy to imagine a dystopian future in which the lighting industry sleepwalks into an ill-advised and corrupting relationship with Big Data. Without debate or reflection on the ethics of this seismic change in the intent and purpose of what we do, this could easily happen incrementally.

I’m not blind to the enormous commercial opportunity that awaits us. In fact, I’m excited by the possibilities of lighting doing more than just illuminating the world. But we should take on this new role with our eyes wide open, after a proper debate and with accepted and agreed codes of conduct. Let’s stay the good guys.