Lamp posts in Chicago are about to become listening posts, as high-tech sensors will be installed on streetlights, with the ability to track weather, pollution, and perhaps most controversially, the city's population.
Engadget reports that from this July onward, researchers will be deploying networked, sensor-equipped lamp posts across the city in an effort to collect data to be used for urban planning and safety. The lamp posts will collect environmental data such as air quality, wind, and noise levels, and by counting the number of cell phones that pass each post, they will also be able to report on foot traffic and population density rates across Chicago.
The Big Brother-like system, which has been dubbed the "Array of Things" project by researchers, is not without its opponents, SiliconRepublic reports. Fred Cate, an expert in privacy issues within technology, worries that lack of oversight will allow pressure from large corporations to release data without individual's approval. Computer scientist Charlie Catlett, who is the director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, pointed out that sensors installed on the lamp posts will collect data in anonymous forms. The lamp post sensors have been designed carefully to observe mobile devices and count contacts with the signal of each device, rather than to record the digital address of that device, according to Catlett.
"We don't collect things that can identify people," Catlett said, adding, "There are no cameras or recording devices." The lamp post sensors will be recording "sound levels but not recording actual sound."
"The only imaging will be infrared," Catlett claimed.
Researchers also contend that such strong data collection programs may give Chicago an advantage in attracting companies that specialize in technological research. "The city is interested in making Chicago a place where innovation happens," Catlett said, referencing the lamp post sensors that he says should be "essentially a public utility."
Chicago researchers are hoping the lamp post system will make the city a leader in "big data" collection. While other cities have attempted to collect similar data over the last decade, the Chicago system is unusual in that it seeks to establish a permanent infrastructure. The curved, perforated boxes that residents will soon see attached to lamp posts will be adaptable to new sensor technologies that are in development. The data collected from the boxes will be available to public, private, and academic sectors in kind, according to researchers.
The Chicago system isn't the first big data collection initiative that has raised privacy concerns. As The Inquisitr has previously reported, a proposed "smart grid" project instilled similar fears that personal privacy could be infringed by the nature of the data collected.
In a move that researchers hope will expose the project to ongoing scrutiny and allay public concern, all of the data collected by the Chicago lamp post sensors will be immediately published.