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Originally published June 27 2014

City lampposts to collect data from citizens as they pass by

by J. D. Heyes

(NaturalNews) At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before examining the contents of a cell phone, the city of Chicago is taking privacy in the electronic age back a step.

New aesthetic fixtures being attached to city lampposts are more than mere decorations; they are sophisticated pieces of technology aimed at collecting data on passersby.

According to the Chicago Tribune:

The smooth, perforated sheaths of metal are decorative, but their job is to protect and conceal a system of data-collection sensors that will measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation and wind. The sensors will also count people by measuring wireless signals on mobile devices.

City officials who approved the devices are attempting to pass them off as nothing harmful; it's just the city conducting research:

The curled metal fixtures set to go up on a handful of Michigan Avenue light poles later this summer may look like delicate pieces of sculpture, but researchers say they'll provide a big step forward in the way Chicago understands itself by observing the city's people and surroundings.

'Where innovation happens'

As you would imagine, the devices are already stirring concerns about privacy; many say they see the installation of the technology as just another encroachment of "Big Brother" government. Of particular concern is the collection of cell phone data.

And again, as you would imagine, critics are being told that there is nothing to worry about. Computer scientist Charlie Catlett told the paper that planners have taken precautions to design the sensors in a way to observe mobile devices and count contact with signals, without recording the digital address of each device.

Researchers in charge of the project have even given it a catchy name: the "Array of Things," a reference to the emerging "Internet of Things," in which more and more devices used in everyday life are being connected to the Internet.

Gathering and publishing a broad swath of data will give scientists the tools that they need to make Chicago safer, more efficient and a cleaner place to live, according to Catlett, who is the director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, part of a joint venture between the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory.

But there's more. Researchers think that Chicago's catch-all research technology will attract even more technological research.

"The city is interested in making Chicago a place where innovation happens," said Catlett.

The paper reported that a number of cities around the world have tried recently to amass great quantities of "big data," in order to provide themselves with a better understanding of their people and surroundings. However, scientists have said that Chicago's project to create a permanent data-collection mechanism is unique.

Big Brother in a big way

Researchers hungry for such demographic and environmental data are very excited about the project, but some experts have said that they think the system's flexibility and anticipated industry partnerships are going to need careful, close monitoring:

Questions include whether the sensors are gathering too much personal information about people who may be passing by without giving a second thought to the amount of data that their movements -- and the signals from their smartphones -- may be giving off.

Scientists hope to place the first sensor by mid-July. They further hope to begin with sensors that are located at eight Michigan Avenue intersections, with plans to follow up with dozens more around the Loop by the end of the year and hundreds more across the city at many locations in the coming years. Eventually, researchers want to expand the data collection into neighborhoods.

"Our intention is to understand cities better," Catlett said. "Part of the goal is to make these things essentially a public utility."

The decision to move ahead with the array has taken place without much attention outside of the technology community. For instance, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not yet talked publicly about the plan, though he frequently holds up Chicago as an emerging hub of technology.

And, apparently, Big Brotherism.

"We don't collect things that can identify people. There are no cameras or recording devices," Catlett says.

We'll see.


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