Portland is moving forward with a plan to install LED lights with advanced technological capabilities. Falmouth, South Portland, Biddeford, Rockland and Scarborough have all considered similar projects.

This move, according to Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, will make Portland an attractive place to live: “As we roll out smart-city technology and overall innovation we’re going to see an increased interest in Portland and, I believe, an improvement in the quality of life,” Jennings said.

But there's a catch.

The problem isn’t with the lights themselves – or with the excitement of turning Portland into a technology innovation hub. It’s not that we can’t see the “green” side of saving energy by automatically turning the lights off and on the streets of Portland.

What raises the alarm is the fact that these LED lights could become the backbone of a new surveillance system, scrutinizing and recording us without adequate privacy policies to limit overreach. Such ‘smart city’ technology has the capability to capture mountains of data.

According to the city’s call for bids, “[t]he City seeks to build a network of LED streetlights with advanced controls that can serve as the backbone on which to deploy ‘smart city’ technologies that offer increased functionality of infrastructure, innovative services to residents and visitors, and opportunities for public/private partnerships that may expand services while providing revenue streams to the City.”

And according to the city’s agreement with the winning contractor, there will be a wireless network with “video cameras installed in Strategic Locations.”

These smart devices employ an array of sensors and cameras that are able to collect and feed data into software, which can do everything from detecting long lines, to recognizing license plates, to analyzing the habits of ordinary citizens of Portland. With such advances, it is a small jump to endless surveillance activities: from tracking citizens’ locations by communicating with their smart phones to registering their heart rates as they pass by an LED street light.

As technology rapidly progresses, privacy and oversight safeguards lag behind. As it stands, there is nothing to stop third parties from accessing this mountain of information, storing it forever, and selling it to other parties for a profit.

Maine people are entitled to know what kind of data is being collected about them and why. There is very little awareness of how poorly designed LED lighting could have a potentially devastating effect on privacy, human health, and our environment.

City officials need to engage Portland citizens and develop privacy policies related to such surveillance equipment, which is ripe for privacy abuses. We need to ensure that, as we move towards a smarter city, we put in place enough safeguards to the protect civil rights and civil liberties of the public.