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Cities Banking on ‘Smart’ Street Lights Amid Major Privacy Concerns

For many of us growing up in the pre-digital age, there was a simple rule of thumb to adhere to when it came to how late we could stay out:  Start heading home when the streetlights kicked on.  Of course, this left all sorts of room for plausible deniability, as we’d proclaim to an angry parent that the lights were out over on such-and-such street, or that we were too far away from the road to notice them illuminating.

But what if the street lights weren’t only the signal to make sure we headed home, but also smart enough to watch us get there?

There’s been lots of hype about “smart cities,” where connected technology helps governments serve us better — but also lots of money wasted on expensive projects that fizzled or caused public outcry over police use of camera surveillance.

Today, hopes have coalesced around the potential for “smart” street lights, which bear sensors that can do everything from analyzing traffic patterns to assisting 911 operators.

  • “Streetlights are becoming the backbone of larger smart city initiatives,” per a report by the Northeast Group, a smart cities market intelligence firm.

  • Cities will invest $8.2 billion in them in the next 10 years, the report said.

  • It will take time: “Overall, over 90% of streetlights will be LED by 2029 and 35% will be connected,” Northeast Group said.

Not everyone is onboard, of course.

There’s been pushback on various fronts.

  • Surveillance: San Diego got scolded by community activists after its police started using video from its $30 million “Smart Streetlights” program.

  • Aesthetics: Light poles gunked up with sensors, cameras and advertisements can look hideous.

  • Health: “Cities and towns throughout Northern California are issuing ordinances that would exclude new 5G cell sites from residential areas, citing supposed health concerns,” per the WSJ.

The privacy concerns are enough for many Americans to be wary of the idea, as the nation continues to rail against mass surveillance of all kinds.

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