The Dark Side of Light

This article is also available in Spanish

Smart lighting can save energy, enhance public safety, and encourage social life, but designers worry those benefits come with an uncalculated cost to privacy.

By Timothy A. Schuler

If you lived in Paris in the 17th century, you paid the taxe des boues et lanternes, the tax on mud and lanterns. The levy paid for the maintenance of the city’s streets and its system of lanterns, a network of some 5,000 tallow candles suspended in glass cases 20 feet above Paris’s streets, and one of the earliest examples of public street lighting in the world.

The inventor of this early illumination system was not a city planner or a scientist but Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, considered to be the city’s first police chief. Since its earliest days, “public lighting was closely connected with the police,” writes the cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch. The high-strung lanterns in Paris were “beacons in the city, representing law and order,” while the paid torch bearers who wandered Paris’s streets providing supplemental illumination also doubled as police informants.

Today, street lighting and surveillance are as tightly enmeshed as ever, as manufacturers proffer networked luminaires with embedded sensors that are capable of feeding enormous amounts of data into proprietary operating systems, turning the city into what the writer Geoff Manaugh, author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, describes as a “forensic tool for recording its residents.”

“It’s very Fahrenheit 451,” says Linnaea Tillett, Affiliate ASLA, the founder and principal of Tillett Lighting Design Associates, which specializes in lighting for outdoor spaces. “You have a light pole that can listen to you, watch you, and it’s all hidden.”

“Smart” lighting can refer to any number of responsive or remotely controllable LED lighting systems. In some cases, the “intelligence” being ascribed to these lighting systems is limited to the functionality of the luminaire itself—for instance, communicating to a central dashboard various aspects of its performance: an outage, energy usage, maintenance needs. In other instances, it is much more dynamic. Sensor bundles integrated into streetlights can measure everything from traffic flow to ambient noise, while gunshot detection software can automatically alert law enforcement to a possible incident and trigger an increase in lighting in the area. As the marketing copy for one Internet of Things (IoT) platform puts it, technology can “turn every lamppost into a city sentinel.”

Linnaea Tillett’s lighting design for the plaza exemplifies the studio’s skill at balancing aesthetics, performance, and public safety. Photo by Alexis Nollet.

What sounds like a dream from a law enforcement standpoint has raised the hackles of watchdog groups and privacy advocates, who argue that without oversight, these sensor-laden streetlights can be abused by private and public entities alike—co-opted by law enforcement, for instance, or used by manufacturers to harvest citizens’ personal data to sell to the highest bidder. “With our personal devices, even though we don’t necessarily read them, we are agreeing to certain terms of data surveillance,” says Eric Gordon, a professor of civic media and the director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. “In the public realm, no one is agreeing. So there has to be some mechanism put in place where there is transparency into who is collecting data and why.”

At the same time, lighting designers like Tillett are beginning to realize that the proliferation of connected luminaires will have profound implications for the future of the public realm. “If the ‘platform/data monopolies’ become the de facto suppliers of civic infrastructure and lighting manufacturers morph into tech companies, what will become of the design of public lighting?” Tillett wrote in a short essay published on her firm’s website earlier this year. Tillett has been watching as more and more lighting manufacturers market smart systems to lighting professionals, but increasingly, she says, entire “smart cities” solutions—packages of both software and hardware—are being sold to cities by large technology companies, leaving designers out of the picture.

Prior to reviving her own lighting design practice, Leni Schwendinger, the founder of the International Nighttime Design Initiative, was an associate principal at Arup, leading an urban lighting group. She recalls a smart lighting research project undertaken with Qualcomm that imagined a series of city streets from a so-called smart future. In one scenario, Wi-Fi-enabled light poles allow businesses to target nearby pedestrians with custom advertisements. “It was about using the light poles,” Schwendinger says. “It wasn’t about lighting at all.”

Schwendinger isn’t anti-smart cities. From a design standpoint, she says, she is thrilled by the prospect of “technology that will allow us to create malleable nighttimes,” for instance, tweaking light levels to better facilitate all manner of after-hours activity such as street festivals and street maintenance. After all, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that “there is a dearth of consideration for essential workers, which are the same people who have always been on the night shift—nurses and doctors and delivery [drivers],” she says. “They were working at night, and they will continue working at night.” For Schwendinger, the question is, “Can we use connected systems to create better districts where the hospitals and transit hubs are, where services are, where service people are?”

A NightSeeing event led by Leni Schwendinger, designed to educate participants about illumination and nighttime environments. Photo courtesy Capital District Transportation Committee.Earlier this year, Schwendinger helped author guidelines for the adoption of smart lighting for New York’s Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC), the metropolitan planning organization for Albany, Saratoga Springs, Troy, and Schenectady. The guidebook, undertaken with Planning4Places, attempts to demystify the notion of smart cities by defining terms and strategies and creating a decision-making road map for state and city leaders. The road map begins with identifying what level of wireless technology is needed to meet a city’s health, safety, and transportation goals. Early steps include educating the community regarding smart cities’ aspirations, analyzing nighttime use of public space, and cataloging existing lighting conditions.

Even as such guidance emerges, the question of privacy looms. In 2018, the City of San Diego installed 3,200 smart LED streetlights in neighborhoods throughout the city. Like most smart lighting projects, the retrofit in San Diego began as a way to reduce energy consumption and therefore public expenditures. According to the city, 38,000 fixtures have been replaced with more energy-efficient ones, reducing night sky impacts from uplighting by 90 percent.

Installed as part of a $30 million contract with GE Current (the system was later sold to Ubicquia), a few thousand of those new lights were equipped with sensors that collected atmospheric data, as well as video cameras. In 2019, a watchdog group called San Diegans for Open Government sued the city for refusing to turn over public documents related to the data being collected by these devices. That same year, local reporting revealed that the San Diego Police Department had been using the streetlight footage with little to no oversight, including, this past summer, in cases related to Black Lives Matter protests.

From the beginning, GE and San Diego city officials have said that all “source” data collected by sensors and cameras is solely owned by the city and that GE has access only to “aggregate” or anonymized data, which the company says is necessary to maintain the system. But “aggregate” data is anonymous in name only. In a landmark investigation by the New York Times’s Privacy Project, after acquiring location data from the phones of roughly 12 million Americans, reporters were able to not only identify the owners but track their movements. They followed police officers, attorneys, military personnel, and other public figures, all with the kind of data that is supposedly anonymous and currently legal to collect and sell. The Times published the results in December 2019.

In San Diego, this means GE, or now Ubicquia, could sell the data collected by its streetlights to the kinds of data brokers that make millions of dollars reselling consumer data to corporations, financial institutions, ad agencies, and more. Unless, of course, the city beats them to it. In April 2019, Erik Caldwell, San Diego’s deputy chief operating officer, told a reporter, “It’s the people’s data. It’s on us to keep it that way. That being said, I’m very interested in monetizing the data.” In response to the recent controversies, San Diego is currently considering two new ordinances that would create additional oversight for the adoption of new technologies and establish a Privacy Advisory Commission made up of community members, legal experts, and others.

The privacy concerns associated with smart technologies have only grown in the pandemic. In an editorial published in the international journal Surveillance & Society, the journal’s editor Torin Monahan and coauthor Martin French note the ways in which surveillance has been key to tracking the spread of the coronavirus and the swift shift in public perception as a result. The COVID-19 crisis, they write, has helped “short-circuit what were growing critiques of China’s surveillance state” and could “normalize oppressive surveillance measures” in the name of public health. And because the virus has been racialized through both rhetoric and policy (the administration’s continued reference to SARS-CoV-2 as the “foreign virus” and travel restrictions on foreigners but not American citizens), efforts by companies like Google to build a web platform that helps individuals assess health risk could, in the words of French and Monahan, “algorithmically encode xenophobic mappings that align risk with foreign bodies or places.” In this environment, who and what is considered a threat to public health has as much to do with cultural narratives about race as it does virology.

One of 3,200 smart streetlights installed in San Diego in 2018, now under scrutiny because of privacy concerns. Photo courtesy City of San Diego.

Already, lighting companies are tweaking products and services in response to the crisis. Signify (previously Philips Lighting) has advertised the ways in which property managers and office workers can use its smart lighting software to encourage social distancing within office buildings, using real-time occupancy data to steer workers to low-volume areas or identifying high-traffic corridors to inform cleaning priorities. It’s not hard to imagine lighting manufacturers promoting similar capabilities in parks and along streets, which could speed the adoption of smart lighting technologies and circumvent the type of civic engagement and transparency that Schwendinger and others say is needed.

Of all the cities she’s evaluated, Schwendinger says Boston is at the forefront of thinking through questions of data privacy and the civic side of smart cities. Among the case studies in the CDTC guidebook is Boston’s Beta Blocks program, a partnership between the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the design firm Supernormal, the Asian Community Development Corporation, and Eric Gordon’s outfit, the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. It was launched in 2018 not to pilot new technologies but to develop the process by which those new technologies might be evaluated by communities. The goal, Gordon says, is to create a model of civic engagement around technological innovation that other cities can use, a model that expressly “invites the public into questioning the role of technology in their places.”

For its most recent project, the Beta Blocks team worked with communities to designate three “exploration zones” in Boston’s Chinatown, Codman Square, and Lower Allston neighborhoods. Each zone comprised four square blocks, where the team installed a series of “smart city” devices like those often incorporated into streetlights—in this case, an air quality sensor, a parking sensor, and a digital kiosk. Following a two-month trial period in summer 2019, all data collected by the devices was shared with a preselected community advisory group to identify safety, privacy, and feasibility concerns. Ultimately, the groups provided recommendations to the city and its tech partners, which included Soofa, Microsoft, and the SYNNEX Corporation, as to how future tech should be introduced.

Tillett, whose work is seen here, is looking to a future where designers help public clients make informed decisions about embedded technology. Photo by Elizabeth Felicella.

Linnaea Tillett says that lighting designers and landscape architects who work in the public realm can play a similar role when working with cities. Designers can—and should—help city officials develop frameworks for decision making that put public welfare ahead of corporate interests. “A lighting designer can bring an expertise [to the table] and show the client, what are the advantages and disadvantages of proceeding in this direction?” she says. In certain cases, designers might even read the fine print of the contracts being considered “so that the client is aware of what they have either sacrificed or gained from a particular relationship.”

Beyond privacy concerns, Tillett worries about the quality of the nighttime environment and what happens when the motivations of large technology companies are the primary drivers of design. “We come into projects with a concern for providing lighting that allows for respite and restoration and also for performance, and it’s a complex approach,” she says. If the psychosocial effects of lighting slip down to fourth, fifth, 10th place on the list of considerations, what becomes of the lighting designer? Does public lighting revert to being the sole domain of state power and the police, as it once was?

Gordon doesn’t think so. He says the civil unrest sparked by police violence in the United States has heightened public awareness about the need for government transparency. Against such a backdrop, “it’s almost unimaginable to conceive of surveillance technologies being put in place that are not vetted by the communities that are potentially most vulnerable to that surveillance. The need for this kind of process around technology, to disclose what it does and how it does it, as we think about the future of our cities, as we think about questions of policing and poverty and housing, is more important than ever.”

Timothy A. Schuler is a contributing editor for the magazine. He writes about design, ecology, and the natural environment.

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