As foretold by Orwell and confirmed by Snowden, Big Brother is watching and listening — but he’s not using Las Vegas’ fancy new streetlights to do so.
The three trial streetlights installed near City Hall in July can do everything from play music to display announcements but, despite concerns about their potential to be outfitted with cameras and microphones, they’re not being used to snoop on private conversations.
The city bought the lights from Intellistreets, a Michigan company, in order to test them as an energy-saving, attractive alternative to standard streetlights for downtown pedestrian corridors.
Test versions at Main Street and Clark Avenue near City Hall have speakers that can play music, electronic banners that display messages and LED bulbs that can be dimmed to cut energy consumption. They’re controlled by a remote interface that can be installed on an iPad.
Niel Rohleder, assistant traffic manager for the City of Las Vegas, said smarter lighting systems are trendy in urban circles for the potential to save money and beautify pedestrian corridors.
“The entire industry is moving to that whole adaptive lighting and developing standards on it,” Rohleder said.
While the lights are advertised as having the capability to collect data via video and audio, Rohleder described those as additional features the city wasn’t interested in purchasing.
“The system does have the capacity, but we never did test it,” he said. “We don’t even have an interface for any sort of microphone or camera or anything.”
But privacy advocates want more than assurances from the city that the streetlights, which aren’t yet planned for widespread deployment, won’t be used for more than safety, convenience and ambiance.
They’re worried the rapid evolution of surveillance technology is outstripping the ability of local government and the public to prevent abuses. Privacy concerns associated with the lights stoked a flurry of interest from online publications following a recent report by MyNews3.
“There is a lot of really cool stuff about it,” said Daphne Lee, who has testified before the City Council and Clark County Commission on privacy issues. “But I don’t think people ever fully look down the road at the negative repercussions it could have in the future.”
Christopher Blakesley, a professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas Boyd School of Law, said courts have upheld the ability of public and private entities to use cameras and other devices to monitor public spaces because people on the sidewalk have a lower expectation of privacy than people in private spaces. Southern Nevada is already home to thousands of cameras in public spaces that are used for everything from security to traffic control.
“Everybody understands you talk and folks around you hear you,” Blakesley said.
But he added that technology upgrades that make it easier to collect and store vast amounts of data complicate the idea of reasonable expectations for privacy.
“This is where technology has outstripped the brains of the Supreme Court,” he said. “I’d start having problems with parabolic mics and other devices. The laws were written and the amendments were written when you didn’t have those devices.”
For the time being, however, there’s no need to worry about the city using the new streetlights to eavesdrop.
Not only do the test lights not include the capability, it’s uncertain officials will want to order more. Rohleder said the Intellistreet lights are for testing only and that if the city wanted more, it would go through a request for proposals, which is a public process and would include detailing what features should be included.
And so far, the lights, which are subject to a six-month test, aren’t producing the savings officials hoped for, Rohleder said.
If officials were to decide to install new lighting downtown, they likely wouldn’t make surveillance a priority, he said.
“That was never the intention,” he said. “What we wanted to do was develop a better experience in the downtown area.”
Contact Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenSpillman702.