In Chicago, the Big Data initiative is about to make a major leap this summer.
Urban planners are excited about the “Array of Things” project, which is installing “smart” lamp posts… pole-mounted sensors that gather data on everything from air quality to sound volume.
These smart lamps could make Chicago “a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live,” according to Charlie Catlett, Director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data.
But they also present a new threat to personal privacy, as a bevy of advocates have noted.
You see, the sensors will also track foot traffic by locking on to cellphone signals. Researchers point out that the data will be collected anonymously, but as so many companies (for example, Netflix) have discovered, anonymity isn’t always foolproof.
Another One of Those Slippery Slopes
Frankly, it’s somewhat incredible that, in the wake of the NSA phone data scandal, other forms of phone data collection march on uninterrupted. Technology always advances faster than ethics, of course, but at this point, Big Data seems unstoppable.
And for many, Big Brother already feels like a foregone conclusion – if not our current reality. Think about it: The police are using facial recognition technology to capture criminals. Our license plates are being tracked by the Department of Homeland Security. Even Congress has been spied on by the CIA.
Those in charge of the “Array of Things” can claim that their sensors avoid recording the actual digital address of every cellphone they encounter…
But, as privacy expert Fred Cate wonders, what happens when “a company comes in and says we’ll pay you a million dollars to collect personally identifiable information?”
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In fact, a similar “smart” street light system has the ability to analyze voices and track people, according to Intellistreets, the company that created the technology. Is there any reason to think that Chicago’s smart lamp posts won’t someday incorporate similar technology – especially if it’s put to use in other major cities?
In the end, money is power, and it’s hard to believe that any large-scale database is truly safe from abuse. More likely, it’s safe for the time being… and is merely waiting to be exploited. That feeling is bolstered by what the Chicago Tribune describes as the system’s “planned partnerships with industry.”
Additionally, what does this trend toward smart cities mean in the long term?
Researchers are clearly not concerned with Stephen Hawking’s warning about artificial intelligence (perhaps rightfully so).
Still, one of the world’s smartest individuals believes that AI is the greatest threat to humankind right now.
As he put it, artificial intelligence could “design improvements to itself and out-smart us all.” If the Robot Apocalypse ever did occur, I imagine humanity would regret the decision to install data-collecting lamp posts in major urban centers.
In Pursuit of the Truth,