The LED light fixtures are watching you at Newark Airport

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

LED light. Image courtesy of ShutterstockWe've already had London's rubbish bins snooping on us, US police wanting to tap into property owners' private security cameras, proliferation of gunshot-detectors, license plate readers popping up like bunnies in the spring - the US Department of Homeland Security is now seeking a national license tracking system - and even at least one drone purchased by a Texas police department.

That's already a lot of things watching us. Now, there's another.

As you turn your head to ponder what devices might be recording you, add an upward gaze, because LED light fixtures are emerging on the list of potentially snooping, networked things.

Specifically, the New York Times reports that the clean, bright light of newly installed LED fixtures illuminating Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport, in the US state of New Jersey, are part of a new wireless network that's watching visitors.

The 171 LED fixtures are the backbone of a system that feeds data into software that can spot long lines, read license plates, identify suspicious activity and alert the appropriate staff, the NYT reports.

Executives in charge of the airport are already talking about expanding it to other terminals and buildings, the newspaper says.

The mass collection of data should certainly sound familiar to anybody whose head hasn't been under a rock over the past year (helloooooo, NSA!).

Likewise, data collection by law enforcement (or transportation security agents, in this particular case) is in keeping with the trend for US cities to increasingly gobble up data on residents.

The NYT reports that the Newark Airport authorities will maintain the data its networked light fixtures suck up and that no other agencies will have access to it without a subpoena or written request.

That may not, of course, matter. The need for a subpoena, written request, or even a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing certainly doesn't stand in the way of the US government conducting surveillance or searches, as the controversy over NSA warrantless surveillance has made clear.

Newark Airport. Image courtesy of ShutterstockThe NYT describes the airport's foray into lighting-cum-surveillance as part of an expanding market for lights, sensors and software that can capture and analyze vast amounts of data on ordinary citizens.

The lights have special chips and connect to sensors, cameras and one another over a wireless network.

The company that developed the system, Sensity Systems, is poised to take the technology much further, having already signed an agreement recently with a leading lighting manufacturer that plans to use the technology in its LED fixtures.

Sensity's leading executive told the NYT that the company's looking at video-based security, public safety, parking management, predictive maintenance and more.

Other cities, including Las Vegas and Copenhagen, are testing new street lighting systems to not only save on energy costs but to also do things such as control lighting, play music, issue security alerts, control traffic, monitor carbon dioxide levels, and detect when garbage cans are full.

Are privacy and data security concerns being taken under consideration?

Sensity, to its credit, has acknowledged the concerns of privacy advocates who say that the tendency is to suck up as much big data as possible first and then worry about securing it later.

The company has gone so far as to create a board to help figure out the technology's implications.

The data, in the meantime, is encrypted (though we have no more detail than that) and "supersecure", chief executive Hugh Martin told the NYT.

But it's perhaps best to be skeptical of claims that data is secure, let alone "supersecure".

We just marked the end of an epic year for data breaches, with over 800 million records lost.

It would be wonderful to believe in the claims that data being rolled up by places like this airport are going to be secure and that nobody's going to get at it without a subpoena or written request.

But there's hope, and then there's reality. Eight hundred million lost records. Goodness gracious, that's a lot of not-so-super security.

What do you think? Are you comforted by the idea of more surveillance in airports, or have you had just about enough of the spread of surveillance technology?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image of LED light and Newark Airport courtesy of Shutterstock.


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21 Responses to The LED light fixtures are watching you at Newark Airport

  1. Drewe · 192 days ago

    On this one, you know in an airport they are filming you anyhow, so... unless they are sneaking them into bathrooms, this is a rare case of no reason to panic :D

    • Blake · 192 days ago

      I agree. I have no expectation of privacy when I go to the airport, other than the restroom. You would expect everyone to behave at an airport anyway. I think this is needed in the 21st century at airports. If you don't want to be observed don't go there. It wasn't so long ago that planes were used as weapons.

    • Phil Wade · 192 days ago

      A bathroom? At an airport? Really? A lavatory, OK. But who needs a bath at an airport?

      • Paul Ducklin · 192 days ago

        People who've just got off a 14 hour flight? Lots of airports have bathrooms. (Perhaps, more properly, shower rooms - though at Narita in Japan, for instance, the showers are installed inside a sort of diminutive cubic bath.)

  2. RichardD · 192 days ago

    It's "encrypted and supersecure"? Based on past experience, that means it's probably stored in plain-text on an open FTP server.

  3. anonymous · 192 days ago

    "no other agencies will have access to it without a subpoena or written request"

    This is my written request to please have access to the data. Thanks

  4. Cardell · 192 days ago

    No big deal. It's a public place.

  5. Richard · 192 days ago

    I would argue that passengers in an airport such as EWR believe that they are NOT under video surveillance.

    I have lived in New York City for the last 40 years and I use EWR, JFK, LGA and TEB frequently (10 to 15 time a year) and I wasn't aware of the video surveillance. I am also a pilot and even as a pilot I was unaware of this.

    • Andrew Ludgate · 192 days ago

      I don't know about EWR, but at all the airports I've been to recently, there have been visible security cameras monitoring all entrances/exits, with a sticker below notifying everyone that the cameras are connected to CCTV and monitored by airport security. There have even been news releases over the past few years about some of these being hooked up to facial recognition systems.

  6. Clemens · 192 days ago

    Very strange justifications, especially in an area that should be secured anyway:

    Read licencse plates inside a terminal?
    To justify that use case passengers will have to wear a license plate around their necks.

    Identify suspicious activity?
    Look, someone is not wearing his license plate!

    Spot long lines?
    That's not a security issue. And there are more efficient solutions (like in supermarkets: Customers can press a button to request one more line to be opened).

    This is not security, not even security theater. This is pure nonsense, not only from a security persective.

  7. Ed · 192 days ago

    One long sentence: I am always amazed (as in: I'll never get used to it) how easily some of us blissfully disregard the blatant personal violations implicit in "extended applications" of active technologies designed to grope human beings from a distance undetected as wielded by agencies of hubris.

    Short version: Where will it end?

    • Thomas · 191 days ago

      You're the only one who seems to have gotten the point so far. It's not about airport security. It's about: if this now, what next?

      • Even FIVE YEARS AGO some countries Iris scan your eyes and thumb-print you before you enter the country.

        I was allowed into the country, an Arabic looking Afghan type in long beard and clan dress was not.

        But there are definite aspects to be concerned about when Police allow all CCTV to be destroyed and then pursue a criminal case where you required the CCTV as absolute proof of your innocnece.

  8. Michael · 192 days ago

    At what point, does a single piece of data available in public, become a database, become connected to another database of "public" info, connected to another, and another, and another, and another?
    At what point does this collection of parts become the whole?
    Somewhere along the way, it becomes an invasion of privacy.

    The other invasion of privacy is that this data is then used, released, or abused without the person's awareness, or ability to defend. What about the 5th amendment?

    Want to know what the opposing legal/business party is up to? Just ask for their LPR, wifi MAC, and all of the other "public" data, and you can find out where they go, and thus, what they are up to.

  9. ...it's always easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission. ALWAYS.

  10. Dave B in Toronto Canada · 192 days ago

    Maybe we should turn it the other way around. The airport should offer an APP so anyone can see what's going on. As has already been noted, it's a public place, and it's already full of cameras in plain view.

    Maybe the APP will have advertising, or a pay version too, so the airport can monetize the recording of security information.

    Maybe we will see videos of security violations on YouTube, or a new web site called 'The People of the Airport' with humourous situations. The security staff will pay attention to trending, when there are too many 'Likes' suddenly, like having an airport full of security guards everywhere.

    Maybe not.

    • How about Advertising CCTV being deleted by Airport Police when it shows your innocence and their guilt?
      As material Documentation proves?

  11. BigPrivacyAdvocate · 192 days ago

    This is bad news globally. More people wanting to stick there nose into other peoples business. Most camera's globally should be eliminated. I talk to police officers and they tell me that 90% of the time the camera's only work against them and hurt them...and they have to be so careful that they end up letting bad guys go and good citizens suffer for it. In my opinion, whoever signs the approval to install them and whoever installs them are responsible for anything bad happening to someone due to misused data. And when the laws change later to make good people look bad, those cameras will be used against them. So again, in my opinion, only the laws that now exist when the camera's were installed can be used...no new laws can be put into effect that later hurt people when the cameras are used as evidence. I definitely value privacy over security.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.