Portland, Maine’s push to become a smart city is raising questions for some about how the technology will impact the privacy of citizens and visitors.
(TNS) — City Manager Jon Jennings envisions Portland becoming a high-tech city with self-driving buses and streetlights that can collect data on traffic flows, noise and air pollution and send out free wireless Internet to residents and business.
For Jennings, the moves toward creating a so-called smart city is part of an ambitious plan to turn Portland into an innovation hub – a place where tech companies and young skilled workers will want to locate – to complement the city’s tourism economy.
“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 Portland’s embrace of the movement also is bringing new concerns to Maine about the potential for a surveillance state, where streetlights are able to watch and listen and gather data on its citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is closely watching Portland’s rollout and reviewing the city’s internal documents about its smart-city project, which is so far the most ambitious among a growing number of smart-city initiatives around the state.
ACLU of Maine attorney Emma Bond said the city needs to have a more meaningful public discussion about what types of data the new technology will be collecting and how it will be used. The community also needs to know what additional surveillance measures could be added in the future.
“Right now we are hoping to learn more and we want to get the conversation started,” Bond said.
The spread of smart-city technology has been raising alarms both internationally and in the U.S. On one hand, the technology offers opportunities for managing traffic, pollution and energy use. But it also opens the door for increased surveillance and data collection about people’s daily lives, movements and habits.
And now that debate has come to Maine, as a growing number of communities here take the first step toward smart-city technology.
It starts with communities purchasing streetlights from the utility company, and upgrading the fixture for a more efficient LED technology. But those new lights are also capable of powering video cameras, audio sensors, Wi-Fi and other technology.
Communities such as South Portland, Falmouth, Biddeford and Freeport are moving forward with efforts to convert streetlights to LED. Many communities are planning on adding smart features to control the brightness of the lights, but are putting off any formal plans for other smart-city technologies.
Scarborough recently entered into a contract with TEN Connected Solutions, the same Philadelphia-based company that is converting Portland’s streetlights and installing smart-city technology.
Once streetlights are converted to LED, Scarborough may add traffic sensors at Dunstan Corner and other technology such as cameras and Wi-Fi, according to Public Works Director Mike Shaw.
Portland appears to be the first community in Maine to aggressively pursue additional smart-city features beyond LED lights.
In October, Portland partnered with TEN Connected Solutions to upgrade about 6,100 streetlights to LED and begin rolling out smart-city technology. The work, which is being broken up into two $4 million phases over the next two years, has already begun on the streetlight conversion.
By the end of June, about 100 of the street lamps are expected to be offering free Wi-Fi to the public, primarily in the Old Port area. The city will also have the ability to control the brightness of each light remotely.
The city is taking on debt to pay for the project, but expects to recoup $10 million in energy savings over the next decade.
The second phase, for which the city has yet to secure financing, would occur from July 1 through June 30, 2019, according to the agreement.
That phase could include between 150 and 300 more Wi-Fi hot spots, traffic sensors and six electric vehicle charging stations, according to the contract.
But it may also include “environmental sensors (and) video cameras installed in strategic locations,” though city officials stress that those cameras are not for surveillance purposes.
“We are very interested in deploying a variety of sensors that may be able to help with vehicle counts in intersections, numbers of pedestrians or bikes using a trail or bike path,” said Troy Moon, the city’s sustainability coordinator. “Some of these may look like a camera but only detect shapes.”
The city’s request for proposals said the winning company needed to have “experience deploying environmental sensors that can provide data to support a variety of ‘smart-city’ technologies including advanced traffic signal controls, parking control and enforcements, pedestrian and traffic counts, and other public safety functions.”
It’s that broad range of potential uses – and the specific mention of video cameras and the vague allusion to public safety functions – that worries privacy advocates such as the ACLU. Other branches of the civil liberties organization have raised similar concerns elsewhere in the country.
The trend also is fueling debate throughout Europe.
A study about privacy concerns in smart cities conducted by the Erasmus University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and published in July 2016 in the Government Information Quarterly explored the tension between using the data for public service or for surveillance.
“As with other forms of social media analytics, the potential to mine the data for more personalized information and targeting of city services are endless and hence, there is a continuous risk of these services being pulled towards the more problematic quadrant where privacy is at stake, and purpose may shift away from service to surveillance,” the report said.
Rob Kitchin, a professor of social sciences at Maynooth University in Ireland, authored a report for the Irish government in 2016 titled “.” He noted how data can be traced to specific users. “Each smartphone has unique identifiers that can be accessed and shared by apps, some of which can be captured externally via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signal,” he wrote. “These IDs can be used to track the phone and, by association, its owner.”
Bond, the ACLU of Maine attorney, said she is concerned that Portland is moving forward with smart-city technology without first having a public discussion about what information is being collected, stored and accessed by government employees.
Bond said that capturing data and storing video and audio presents a significant risk of abuse.
“There should be rules about how those types of material can be used,” Bond said. “At the very least, we need to have a public conversation about whether this is the type of city Portland wants to be, and so far we haven’t had that conversation. For Portland to move forward without having that discussion is premature.”
Bond said that the practice could be an invasion of privacy and infringement on civil liberties, even though the data is collected in public space.
“There is a difference between me walking down the street and someone seeing me versus there being a video recording of me walking down the street every day for 10 years,” she said. “The nature of digital recordings and having massive quantities of information about us present new risks for our civil liberties we have to be aware of.”
In 2015, the national ACLU warned of a surveillance state after The New York Times published about companies combining LED lights and big data collection.
“I always figured Big Brother was going to be some giant face on a wall, not a tiny camera hidden inside a light bulb,” said Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU. “But what is particularly troubling here is the stealthy way in which the product is being marketed and pitched to the press; to wit, as an energy-efficient light bulb with built-in monitoring technology.”
More recently, the ACLU of Northern California joined with other privacy advocates last year in calling on the San Jose City Council to pass an ordinance that would require a robust public discussion about adding any sort of surveillance technology, including video cameras and audio sensors, to their LED streetlights.
“In short, these 39,000 streetlights are ready-made for potentially invasive surveillance,” the ACLU co-signed by 11 other groups. “Now is the time for the Council to consider civil liberties and civil rights implications of these devices.”
In Portland, City Manager Jennings has led the charge in increasing the city’s technological capabilities.
It’s hard to miss those advances at City Hall, which now features interactive digital kiosks, flat-screen televisions in the hallways, and small touch screens outside of meeting rooms that display the meeting calendars.
Jennings also updated City Hall to include video cameras, which also have the ability to record audio. And he plans to roll out ATM-style kiosks that will allow people to make simple financial transactions, rather than going to the treasury.
However, Jennings emphasized that city officials have not discussed – nor are they interested in – using streetlights for surveillance.
“It’s not something that I’m remotely interested in,” Jennings said. “It’s not like we have a tremendous amount of crime in Portland where we need cameras on every light pole or traffic light.”
Instead, Jennings is hoping to use the technology to move traffic more efficiently through town. For example, he said traffic sensors will be deployed on Forest Avenue to adjust and coordinate traffic lights, which could reduce commuting times by an estimated 30 percent.
He said environmental sensors would allow the city to measure pollution and noise levels in certain areas, which would help the Public Health Department create the city’s first citywide health assessment.
Smart-city technology can be coupled with other efforts, such as trying to bring autonomous buses that might ease congestion by running back and forth between the Portland Transportation Center and the waterfront, and is part of Jennings’ effort to make Portland an “innovation hub,” attracting young, professional, skilled workers and companies.
When asked about the video cameras included in the city’s work plan, Jennings said that would likely be used to help city staff make bike and pedestrian safety upgrades.
“If we’re using cameras to address concerns about pedestrian and bike safety, I’m less concerned about that less intrusive use,” he said. “There would be an enormous amount of public discussion if we were using cameras for surveillance reasons.”
©2018 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.