American cities from coast to coast have been making moves to gradually making their cities ‘smarter’ by replacing traditional street lights with smart LED street lights. Many Americans are concerned, however, over how ‘smart’ lights, often equipped with cameras and microphones, will increase surveillance on city streets.

Installing the new lamp posts in cities is part of an effort to minimize energy used to illuminate city streets. Cities like Baltimore, San Diego, and Kansas City have already installed LED street lights on their streets; Portland, Maine, on the other hand, is racing to become the first city to convert its entire light grid.

Back in 2014, The New York Times reported on the 171 cameras that were installed at Terminal One at Newark Liberty Airport that were part of a wireless network that collects data used for surveillance and maintaining order at the airport. Needless to say, once they realized what was happening, travelers were stunned and highly discomfited.

LED street lights have been well-received by cities primarily because of their energy- and cost-efficiency and not for their potential to surveil city residents – not explicitly, at least. The LED street lights themselves are not necessarily designed for surveillance, but their potential to be tweaked according to law enforcement’s needs and their positioning in cities enables them to act as an extension of the police’s eyes and ears on streets.

Over the next two years, Portland plans on dispersing 6,100 LED street lights across the city in an attempt to reduce light pollution and save the city approximately $1 million in maintaining traditional lamp posts. Although the city claims it doesn’t plan on equipping the new LED street lights with cameras anytime soon, residents aren’t necessarily reassured. Portland currently doesn’t have any legislation in place requiring the city to notify residents should this type of surveillance take place.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is at the forefront of the battle against urban surveillance in ‘smarter’ cities, has launched a campaign to encourage city leadership to involve residents in the process. The campaign, titled #TakeCTRL, revolves around ensuring residents are aware of surveillance taking place in their cities and how the data gathered is used to ‘make cities safer.’

Contention surrounding LED street lights may arise when they are equipped with optical sensors, cameras, and microphones which can monitor streets, intercept signals, and record audio of happenings on streets. Residents are concerned with when, where, and how this data may be used to increase urban safety.

But with more than 1,000 people killed by law enforcement across the country in 2017, concerns over how data collected through the LED street lights could be used to corroborate residents are valid. City officials, nonetheless, are adamant on reiterating their intent for the new LED  street lights.

Mayor of Schenectady, New York, Gary McCarthy, said to CityLab that the data collected could be useful for business and regulating traffic flows. “The actual surveillance, if you’re really deploying it correctly, is a very small component of the potential application,” he said. “The pavement management, sequencing and traffic control devices are more practical.”

The fear of residents and entities like the ACLU is what the data these light posts collect could be used for. Should the street lights begin to collect data on sounds on the street, videos of interactions, and pictures of individuals strolling down the street, law enforcement could use it for persecution or to commit violations against low-income individuals and communities of color.

Data collection through the LED street lights, however, may prove to be helpful when it comes to catching criminals or automatically identifying the sound and source of gunfire and, accordingly, alerting the police. But similar concerns arise even within this conversation around how it can inform and enable law enforcement, which is the extent to which this data will be used ethically.

Ultimately, the decision on how LED street lights will be used in Portland and elsewhere in the United States will be left up to city planners and city leadership. Cities across the globe are mobilizing to grapple with threats to urban security, warranting increased police presence on streets, surveillance on the streets, in homes, and on the internet, and other measures. Whether ensuring the safety of a city’s citizens through surveillance is a necessary measure is another question that many are beginning to ask themselves.

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