(Image source: New York Times)

Sensity Systems High Bay Luminaire lights do more than make it easier to get to your flight. (Image source: New York Times)

Most people tend to avoid staring intently at bright light bulb; it isn’t a pleasant feeling. This may be exactly what the designers of a new security system at Newark Airport had in mind.

Newark Liberty International Airport Terminal B now sports 171 new LED fixtures that illuminate the cavernous interior, but the lights are hiding another component: High definition cameras that are the backbone of a system that is watching everyone who passes through. The New York Times reports:

Using an array of sensors and eight video cameras around the terminal, the light fixtures are part of a new wireless network that collects and feeds data into software that can spot long lines, recognize license plates and even identify suspicious activity, sending alerts to the appropriate staff.

The Newark project was implemented by California-based Sensity Systems, and their ‘High Bay Luminaire’ lamp-camera device is designed to reduce energy use “up to 90% compared to conventional lighting,” while improving light levels and safety in large spaces like a warehouse, a convention center/arena, or an airport.

The dual-purpose fixtures are similar to other combined ‘safety and monitoring’ measures various cities are initiating. According to the New York Times, Las Vegas is testing a street lighting system that can broadcast sound, and plans to use it mainly to control lighting and play music or to issue security alerts at a pedestrian mall. And Denmark is installing 20,000 streetlamps as part of a system that could eventually control traffic, monitor carbon dioxide levels and detect when garbage cans are full along the streets of Copenhagen.

Sensity and Intellistreets are two companies maximizing on the efficiency pitch; cities and corporations alike are hunting for ways to save dollars and cutting energy costs is a big win for any executive. But what began as a way for governments and businesses to save dollars by automatically turning lights on and off has become an expanding market for lights, sensors and software capable of capturing and analyzing vast amounts of data about the habits of ordinary citizens.

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Intellistreets lamps offer network-connected options like embedded emergency call buttons and two-way hands free communication (Image via Intellistreets).

According to the New York Times, Fred H. Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, described the potential for misuse as “terrifying.”

His concern derived not from the technology itself but from the process of adopting it, driven by, he said, “that combination of a gee-whiz technology and an event or an opportunity that makes it affordable.” As a result, he said, there was often not enough thought given to what data would actually be useful and how to properly manage it.

At Newark Airport, the Port Authority will own and maintain the data it collects. For now, it says, no other agencies have access to it, and a law enforcement agency can obtain it only through a subpoena or written request.

To customers like the Port Authority, these integrated systems hold a promise of better management of security as well as energy, traffic and people. But they also suffer from technological stumbling blocks such as the inability to manage the mountain of data a system like this will retrieve, as well as running risks of invading privacy and mismanaging information, not unlike the issues Target and Nieman Marcus ran into with hackers having access to so multiple interconnected systems.

So what do you think? Are smart, integrated systems like these the ideal way to maximize efficiency while monitoring safety in public spaces?

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter.