Don't look now, but that lamppost you just passed in the airport terminal knows you didn't pay your property tax this quarter.
If this sounds like a far-fetched scenario, consider recent news focused on Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, including a current test of video sensors in LED lighting fixtures at Newark Airport and news of a global tech alliance between IBM and AT&T to (quoting from the press release) "combine their analytic platforms, cloud, and security technologies with privacy in mind to gain more insights on data collected from machines in a variety of industries."
That's the same AT&T, by the way, that handled over 300,000 requests from the US government for data on user accounts in 2013, including pleas for direct access to over 35,000 user accounts and requests for location information of about 38,000 users.
AT&T says it gave partial or no information in response to just 17,463 requests, indicating that the carrier complied with nearly all of them -- a fact I find both reassuring and sinister.
IBM and AT&T have targeted city governments and midsize utilities for the first wave of their IoT campaign, for the following reason stated in the press release:
These organizations intend to integrate and analyze vast quantities of data from assets such as mass transit vehicles, utility meters, and video cameras. As a result, cities may be able to better evaluate patterns and trends to improve urban planning and utilities can better manage their equipment to reduce costs.
The global market for IoT solutions, according to research firm IDC, could reach $8.9 trillion by 2020, thanks to all it encompasses, including sensors, software, virtualized hardware and applications, analytics, wireless techniques, mobility, and cloud services.
The solutions proposed by IBM and AT&T have mostly to do with the growing submarket for machine to machine (M2M) solutions -- obtaining data from sensors and transmitting it over a network to applications that store and analyze it. An example might be the use of sensors to report traffic patterns; video surveillance of a stadium; or the ability to take mobile reports from citizens about events requiring city maintenance or emergency response.
While starting from these kinds of fairly mundane applications, IBM and AT&T plan grander schemes, such as the "smarter city operations center" depicted in IBM's promotional video below:
The vendors are confident that IoT solutions will lead to many more. "Smarter cities, cars, homes, machines and consumer devices will drive the growth of the Internet of Things along with the infrastructure that goes with them, unleashing a wave of new possibilities for data gathering, predictive analytics, and automation," said Rick Qualman, IBM VP of strategy and business development for telecom industry, in a prepared statement.
Now, back to that nosy LED lighting. The devices used in the Newark Airport trial gather input from wireless sensors, video cameras embedded in LED lamps, feed it into a database, and use it in applications for security and foot traffic monitoring. Developed by Sunnyvale, California, startup Sensity Systems and called Light Sensory Network, the LED-based IoT network uses lighting from Amerlux LLC; and Sensity hopes to add more partners.
"Signing Amerlux, a lighting technology leader, as our first [lighting manufacturing partner]... will help accelerate... the adoption of new applications and services that will also transform everyday life for citizens all over the world,” said Sensity CEO Hugh Martin.
Indeed. My hope is that this kind of IoT network doesn't make us victims of yet more surveillance, government or otherwise. While the ability to nab terrorist suspects before they strike is awesome, there is a clear downside, perhaps more than one. The director of the University of Indiana's Center for Cybersecurity Research, Fred H. Cate, told the NY Times he finds some potential uses of this technology "terrifying."
So, could your image at Newark Airport trigger an application that reports your city's property tax records? I don't think that's so far-fetched at all. While I love to stay safe, value every possible urban convenience, and applaud anything that could improve our quality of life, I think it's time to consider just what it is we're allowing authorities to do in the Internet of Things.
— Mary Jander, Managing Editor, UBM's Future Cities