Beyond Illumination: Some LED Lamps May Be Tracking You

Several companies are buying lighting systems with motion sensors that can transmit data about people’s activities

20 August 2015

LEDs, which last years longer than fluorescent lights and use only a fraction of their power, are expected to replace some 50 million aging light bulbs over the next few years worldwide, according to an article in the New York Times. While some companies and cities are mainly concerned about saving energy and money, others are looking to reap benefits beyond illumination.

Sensity Systems, a startup in Sunnyvale, Calif., that builds and manages smart-lighting networks, announced last month it is partnering with Atlanta-based LED manufacturer Acuity Brands to develop a lighting system with motion sensors. It can help cities save electricity with lights that turn on and off automatically as people drive or walk by, ease congestion on the roads by alerting drivers to traffic jams, and sense when municipal garbage cans need to be emptied. Stores in malls and shopping centers can use the technology to send shoppers messages to their smartphones about sales. Meanwhile, LED sensors in the parking lot can track when cars leave and alert nearby shoppers to empty spots.

The startup has several financial backers, including Simon Property Group, a commercial real estate giant that owns more than 300 malls worldwide. Simon has already begun using Sensity’s systems at a few of its malls. According to The New York Times article, Simon is ready to install the LED systems in all its properties. That means that sensors on some 20,000 LED lights in mall stores and parking lots will be able to communicate with the Sensity network.

There are already several apps for receiving the automated coupons that that send shoppers coupons based on their locations. Swirl, a mobile app available for iOS and Android, interacts with networks of motion sensors that send notifications about deals to nearby shoppers who have the app. Target, the second largest U.S. retailer, announced last week that it will begin testing such sensors in 50 of its stores. And in May, department store Lord & Taylor began testing the location-based coupon app SnipSnap to send users coupons when they pass within 500 meters of a store.

Sensity’s system will also require users to opt-in to get updates from retailers. As Richard K. Reece, the company’s chief financial officer, points out in The New York Times article, “There’s a fine line between being helpful and being creepy.” However, shoppers’ movements will be tracked and data about their whereabouts will be collected regardless of whether they sign up for coupons.

How do you feel about LED sensor systems? Can they be helpful, or is this yet another example of a technology that invades our privacy? 

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