Do Fabulously Smart Lightbulbs Threaten Our Privacy?

Photo (cc) by glasseyes view

“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.

Always on, always watching

LED streetlights are more than streetlights: Because lights are everywhere and already wired into electrical networks, smart bulbs are naturals to act as always-on data collectors. They will “forecast the weather, improve parking in cities, heighten security, and facilitate communication,” writes Digital Trends. This article describes GE’s plans to use LEDs as centers for command and control of home, industry and public spaces:

Networked LED streetlights will have the ability to direct drivers to available spaces with the help of built-in sensors and wireless transceivers, GE explained. The same streetlight could serve as a sensor and give warnings in the event of a hurricane or other events through a public-address speaker concealed within the light post. Or direct first-responders.

Already, San Diego and San Jose, California, and Jacksonville, Florida, are investing in LED streetlights that promise to repay their cost in energy and money saved.

“Existing LED lights can be retro-fitted with sensors to monitor pollution, measure snowfall and sniff out a dirty bomb before it can spew radiation,” reports CBS News.

The challenge to privacy

To see the LED future in action, CBS visited a Silicon Valley building where “40 lampposts in the parking lot (hold) 83 LED lights, and they’re connected to seven cameras in a seamless grid that tracks and records people’s moves.” The cameras record license plates and follow individual people’s movements. All this data can be accessed from the cloud by authorized users.

Smart bulbs will include built-in cameras and sensors connected through a wireless network. At Newark Airport, where smart lights recently were installed, bulbs can monitor security, point out an unattended bag and keep an eye on the flow of foot traffic, CBS News says.

“There is no end to the kind of information you could gather,” CBS learned.

The challenges to personal privacy are obvious yet “technology is evolving faster than our policies to control it,” Linton Wells, of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., tells CBS.

Without that evolution, it would be difficult to envision the precise nature of the threat to privacy. Now that we can see the technology’s potential, there is an opportunity for privacy management, Hugh Martin, president of Sensity Systems, a Silicon Valley company at the forefront of LED technology, explained to CBS.

What’s your reaction to the privacy challenges of smart bulbs? Would you mind trading the loss of some privacy for the convenience they offer? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
26 Things Everyone Should Keep in Their Car
26 Things Everyone Should Keep in Their Car

These tools and conveniences help protect drivers from hassles and calamities on the road.

These 12 Reusable Products Save You Money Over and Over
These 12 Reusable Products Save You Money Over and Over

Buy reusable versions of these household items, and you won’t have to spend another dime on them for years.

8 Products That Solve Everyday Annoyances
8 Products That Solve Everyday Annoyances

These items put an end to the daily irritations that bug you the most.

This Grocery Store Is Cheaper Than Even Walmart
This Grocery Store Is Cheaper Than Even Walmart

One grocery chain is likely to save you more money than any other.

This Chase Card Is Great for Groceries and Cash Back on Everything
This Chase Card Is Great for Groceries and Cash Back on Everything

You could earn more than $600 cash back in your first year just from grocery shopping.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco

This leader in bulk shopping is a great place to find discounts in the fixed-income years.

Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines
Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines

Fall is the time to schedule vaccines that can keep you healthy — and even save your life.

11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older
11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older

There is no need to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of so-called “senior” discounts.

11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous
11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous

When you get the impulse to stockpile these everyday items, pay close attention to their expiration dates.

8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies
8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies

In this age of higher-priced drugs and complex health care systems, a trip to the pharmacy can spark worry. Freebies sure do help.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America
The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America

A new model parks atop the list of vehicles that thieves love to pilfer.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020
The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020

Based on dozens of metrics tied to affordability, quality of life and health care, these are not ideal places to spend retirement.

9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday
9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday

These items are all steeply discounted — but the deals won’t last long.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income
26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income

These states won’t tax any of your Social Security income — and in some cases, other types of retirement income.

10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62
10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62

If you can, here are several good reasons to retire earlier than we’re told to.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees
5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees

Retirees agree: These are the things that give them purpose and fulfillment in their golden years.

14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare
14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare

These services could save you money and help prevent costly health problems.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.