Do Fabulously Smart Lightbulbs Threaten Our Privacy?

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“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.

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