Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Smart Lampposts: Illuminating Smart Cities

Street lamp

Street lamp

An IoT Ethics Case Study

Irina Raicu

In August 2018, a publication titled Smart Cities World featured an article on the deployment of smart street lighting in Hong Kong. “Leveraging IoT sensors fixed on the lamp posts,” the article explained, the technology

will enable real-time collection of city data, such as weather, air quality, temperature, people and/or vehicle flow related information, for city management and the support of various applications of smart city initiatives.  It will also provide services such as wi-fi hotspots, electric vehicle charging facilities, information dashboard for maps and directions, real-time traffic updates, and car parking vacancy space information.

Smart lampposts are often adopted as a means to reduce energy use, as well as to enhance public safety. A number of cities in the U.S., too, have deployed versions that include microphones and related AI technology; Los Angeles, for example, is reportedly “equipping the streetlights with sensors that can detect gunshots or other noises that may pose a threat to public safety.” Schenectady, N.Y., has installed environmentally friendly LED bulbs in 5,000 of its streetlights, with “the entire network accessible through a secure web browser.” When there are no cars or people on the streets served by smart light posts, the smart lights dim; if motion sensors are triggered, the lights go up. In 2017, the mayor of Schenectady explained: “So, if you’re walking a dog at 10 p.m. at night and all the lights are going on in the street when you’re walking down, you get an added level of security.”

In Singapore, a Smart Nation Sensor Platform project got underway in 2018, aiming to eventually fit all 100,000 of that city’s light posts with a network of smart sensors. Responding to concerns raised about privacy—in particular by the proposed use of facial recognition technology in combination with the deployment of high-definition camera on the light poles—the Deputy Secretary of the program commented,

We have no plans to use it to probe into how people live their lives. … The whole point of the sensor platform is to look at improving services, look at how to run the city and operate the city better and how to plan the city better. We have no plans to do moral policing or things like that.

At least one local professor noted, however, that cybersecurity and data leaks could be “bigger dangers.”

Privacy concerns were also expressed by a councilman in San Jose, California, when in 2018 the city approved the installation of 1,000 smart streetlights which can also, purportedly, “[detect] car crashes, gun shots and even [serve] as an earthquake sensor.” According to a report on the local NBC station, the streetlights are also equipped with “face recognition, cameras, and audio recording capabilities.” While some raised concerns, one resident quoted in the news report argued that "If people know they're being watched, they don't do stupid things.”

Back in Hong Kong, the rollout of the smart lampposts program began in July 2019. The following month, during mass protests, various news outlets reported that some demonstrators, worried about governmental surveillance, were cutting down the newly installed smart lampposts. According to an article in The Atlantic,

The Hong Kong government has acknowledged that the lampposts have enough hardware to spy on citizens, but says protesters’ fears are unfounded. In July, as the first wave of lampposts were installed around the region, federal officials promised to disable some surveillance features, including license-plate recognition and continuous audiovisual surveillance. Tony Wong, an assistant government chief information officer in Hong Kong, said in a recent press conference that the posts aren’t capable of the invasive facial recognition deployed in China.

The Hong Kong Free Press noted that, after 20 smart lampposts were destroyed, a local company involved in the project decided to end its contract with the Hong Kong government. The company reported that some of its employees, as well as family members of some of its executives, had received threats. In a statement, it said that it hoped its decision would “reassure the public,” adding, “We understand that disputes in society over the past few months led the public to be cautious and mistrustful towards some technology.”


Before answering the questions below, please review this article about ethical decision-making, different ethical perspectives, and the considerations that we should keep in mind when faced with ethical issues:

  1. Who are the stakeholders involved in the development, deployment, and use of smart lampposts? Who should be consulted about such projects’ goals and development?
  2. What steps might business and government teams need to take in order to access the information/perspectives needed to manage the ethical landscape of such projects?
  3. What are some ethical issues that should be addressed as part of the deployment of smart lampposts in cities? Do those issues differ from city to city?
  4. How might the deployment of smart lampposts be evaluated through the ethical lenses of rights, justice/fairness, utilitarianism, common good, and virtue ethics?
Sep 19, 2019
Internet Ethics Stories