Do Fabulously Smart Lightbulbs Threaten Our Privacy?

Lightbulbs with stunning capabilities are on the way to your home, grocery store and parking lot. Find out why they are both amazing and terrifying.

“Smart” LED lightbulbs are one of the coolest new technologies for homes. These bulbs are brighter than incandescent bulbs and about 90 percent more efficient, meaning that they use far less electricity. They also have lifespans of up to 20 years or more. (Here is how to shop for LED lightbulbs.)

But there the resemblance between LEDs and old-style bulbs ends. For better and worse, these LED bulbs are poised to change life as we know it. That’s because LEDs can be embedded with computer chips, transforming lightbulbs into “smart” devices that can be networked and, through networks, controlled remotely. So what, you say? Read on.

Networked lightbulbs

Already, you can buy LED bulbs that can be controlled with an app or through a home network to change the color of your bulb’s light or dim without a dimmer wall switch. CNET reviews 10 smart bulbs currently available (cost: $15 to $200) and describes their capabilities, costs and networkability.

It’s early days for smart bulbs. Not all are ready for prime time. Thus, “When you turn over control of your lights to an app, the basic act of turning on a light can become slow or ludicrously complicated,” The Wall Street Journal says.

At home

Dimming and changing color are parlor tricks compared with what’s to come. Smart bulbs use Visible Light Communication technology to communicate with a smartphone and pinpoint your location more accurate​ly​ even than GPS,” Marketwatch says.

At home that will allow, for example, the lights in your kitchen to turn on when they sense your smartphone is nearby. The Journal article says that LED bulbs:

… can be programmed to wake you in the morning, turn on when you’re coming home or change the mood to ‘romantic dinner’ with a click on your phone. They can sync up with other electronics in your home like thermostats or TVs, manage themselves to save electricity and even alert you if there’s a fire.

At the store

In the grocery store, the smart bulbs will be able to transmit a code to your smartphone’s camera, sending you personalized offers for products as you pass a shelf display. Marketwatch says:

… the accuracy is down to 5 to 10 centimeters while other location-finder technologies are accurate only to within a few meters. That means that when consumers opt in to a retailer’s app, the retailer can send to their phones product information or promotions tied specifically to the item they are interested in, especially when there are many other items showcased nearby.

“Another potentially huge application would be keeping tabs on food expiration dates, to minimize spoilage,” according to Heather Clancy, who writes commentary at Forbes.

As smart bulbs link the ability to identify us with our history of purchases and preferences, they will be increasingly able to anticipate our wants and needs. “In the future, the smart network could track everyplace we go, everything we buy, everything we do, all the time,” says LEDs Magazine. It continues:

This successful data-mining might initially seem intrusive, but as the app adapts to the individual user’s patterns, more and more of the offers begin to actually fit our lifestyles, predicting when we’re in the shopping mode, and what we might actually be shopping for.

As these ubiquitous networks get to know us better, the magazine says,

Our personal wearable technologies, whether the simple RFID in our employee badges or more complex data communication from our bio-monitoring smart watches, will be used to correlate our presence and status with our learned preferences to deliver everything from customized lighting scenes to optimized temperature and humidity levels.

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