(Source: Chicago Urban DeZine)
Will the city's new sensors be harmless or Big Brother tools? Depends on who you ask...

While they may look like modern art, new curled metal bodies extending from lampposts in downtown Chicago are actually the pillars of a controversial "big data" project that critics say borders on the antagonist "Big Brother" of George Orwell's cautionary political tale 1984.
I. The Array of Things -- Magnificent or Menacing?
It was in Chicago that a young Harvard Law School graduate Barack Obama rose up the political ranks as a civil rights lawyers and lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.  Now a decade after the Chicago lawyer ran a successful campaign to win one of Illinois' two seats in the U.S. Senate, critics say his hometown could be embracing the President's vision of "big data" and ubiquitous privatized surveillance of citizens in the name of science and national security.
Located just a mile away from the law school in downtown Chicago where the President once taught, Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago's biggest north-south streets.  The lampposts lining the avenue are the site of the wild new data collection devices.

Chicago Spy Box
Chicago's streets will be littered with sensor boxes like this, in coming months. [Image Source: SAIC]

Packed with sensors, these curling constructs will measure a variety of environmental factors including air quality, heat, precipitation, and wind.  They will also contain digital listening and imaging equipment.  

The city contends these sensors will be used simply to study local light and noise pollution.  But some fear the sensors could be abused as a testpad for new ubiquitous sensing technologies that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and others are eyeing for future use in "keeping an eye" on Americans.
The sensors will also collect wireless data on the nearby devices.  City officials say there's nothing sinister about this either.  They say that the wireless data mining will allow them to estimate pedestrian traffic in order to better provide city services and to conduct sociological research.
II. To Spy or Not to Spy
The sensing constructs -- built as part of the "Array of Things" project -- are being manufactured by the Urban Center for Computation and Data (Urban CCD), a joint project from the University of Chicago and the nearby Argonne National Laboratory, a non-profit research laboratory operated by the university.  Leaders at the lab contend the sensors -- which may see trial deployment as early as next month -- will make the city cleaner and safer.
The sensors will be contained inside boxes mounted to the lamppost and disguised/protected by curling, artistic metal shrouds.  The shroud concept is being developed by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
Leading the effort to design the sensor box is big data scientist Charlie Catlett, the Urban CCD's director.  He led the team that designed the new sensors and he insists that they will be respectful of Chicago residents' privacy.  He claims the sensors won't log addresses of wireless devices (which could provide crude positional tracking of targets of interest).  Rather he says, the devices will only count the number of unique wireless devices they "see".

Charlie Catlett
Urban CCD director Charlie Catlett [Image Source: Stem-Trek Blog]

His argument is that if Chicago waits and passes on the opportunity to mine its streets of big data, other cities will, and reap the rewards.  He comments in an interview with The Chicago Tribune:

The city is interested in making Chicago a place where innovation happens.  Our intention is to understand cities better.  Part of the goal is to make these things essentially a public utility.

We don't collect things that can identify people. There are no cameras or recording devices.  [There will be collection of] sound levels but not recording actual sound. The only imaging will be infrared.

[Sometimes sensor projects log device IDs.]  However, the danger associated with saving such apparently anonymous data is that it might later be combined with other data sources such that the information can be pieced together to determine identity.  For this reason, we made the decision that the (sensors) will not save address data, and will only count nearby devices.

Indeed, some experts say the outcry over the sensors and the idea of eyes on the streets watching citizens may be a bit overstated -- and a bit late.  Chicago is already home to one of the nation's largest and most prolific networks of security cameras.  While much of this network is privately owned, local and federal authorities -- including groups like the NSA -- are believed to have some level of access to the camera data.  The city's plethora of cameras, many of which have been upgraded to shoot HD video of passersby, rivals even London’s (in)famous closed-circuit TV (CCTV) camera network.
So they hardly need such a crude new tool to watch Chicago residents.  They're already watching them.
III. Watching Over the City
Likewise, the concerns over the wireless device monitoring may be missing the forest for the trees as well.  Even if the Urban CCD was to lie and outfit its sensors with the capability to log records of wireless devices along with time and location, that would not be a great new risk as the cellular base stations that litter the city's tall towers already do precisely that.

Chicago Array of Things
The box's will be able to sensor air, noise, and light pollution, among other things. [Image Source: UChicago]

Mr. Catlett suggests that the new sensors use established Bluetooth and Wi-Fi polling techniques that allow basestations to call out with a signal packet and receive replies from compatible nearby devices.  But rather than log the ID of these devices, which could later be exploited to damage privacy, he says his team's hardware simply counts the unique IDs in temporary memory, discarding them from memory once they go out of range.  The devices information will never be stored, he says.
The sensors are relatively cheap.  Funded by city, state, and federal grants, they will likely cost less than $1,000 per sensor and will be relatively energy efficient, consuming only about $15 USD/year in power.  Maintenance costs are expected to be low, and installation will cost around $215 to 425 USD in wages for one of the city's electricians to install the device.

Chicago maps
The sensors will be deployed on South Michigan Avenue, near where President Obama taught students law, over a decade ago. [Image Source: UChicago]

A single sensor will be installed on Michigan Avenue and will be followed by seven more identical sensors at other intersections on the street (to be installed in late July or early August).  He says he expects dozens of the sensors -- funded by taxpayer grants -- to be installed up and down Michigan Avenue by the end of the year.  And in future years he sees the sensor network continuing to grow along lampposts all through Chicago and out into its neighboring suburbs.
IV. Project Boasts Support From City, Corporate Funding
The city's information and technology commissioner Brenna Berman (also referred to as the city's "Chief Information Officer, or CIO) raved about the project, stating:

Chicago as a test bed of urban analytical research.  Part of why this is so exciting is a lot of the analytics we do is targeted to a specific problem, and this is more general.

We've been extremely sensitive to the security and the privacy of residents' data.  [The city has final say on privacy] because they're installed on city property.  Nothing else can be deployed without the city's say-so.

Chicago CIO
Chicago CIO Brenna Berman [Image Source: Tori Soper Photography]

She and Chicago's mayor -- Rahm Emanuel -- are working on drafting a privacy policy for the Array of Things, a more explicit contract to let citizens know precisely what the sensor boxes can and cannot collect.
As one of the first projects of this kind and scope in the U.S., the sensor network project is backed by an elite legion of U.S. and international technology firms including:
  • Intel Corp. (INTC)
  • Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM)
  • Motorola Solutions Inc. (MSI)
  • Cisco Systems, Inc. (CSCO)
  • Zebra Technologies Corp. (ZBRA)
  • Schneider Electric SA (EPA:SU)
Together these backers have offered up bleeding-edge sensor and processing technology, as well as over $1M USD in grant money to the project.

V. Benefits Unknown, Dangers Probable

Despite the bright rhetoric and high hopes, some like Indiana University Law School privacy law expert, Professor Fred Kate are skeptical of the project's privacy promises, particularly in the face of the private grants and federal national security laws.  Prof. Kate states:

Almost any data that starts with an individual is going to be identifiable.  you actually collect the traffic. You may not care about the fact that it's personally identifiable. It's still going to be personally identifiable.

[You must consider] the natural tendency that economics play.  If you spend a million dollars wiring these boxes, and a company comes in and says 'We'll pay you a million dollars to collect personally identifiable information,' what's the oversight over those companies?

Fred Cate
Fred Cate, Indiana University law professor

Professor Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) at Harvard University echoes this, commenting:

If they do a good job they'll collect identifiable data. You can (gather) identifiable data with remarkably little information," King said. "You have to be careful. Good things can produce bad things.
[The question of whether to collect identifiable data for corporate partners is] ultimately one for voters who [will otherwise] have to pay more in taxes [to support the system].  It's a public policy question.  Most companies don't care about you, they care about people like you.

Gary King
Prof. Gary King, a top privacy researcher at Harvard Univ. [Image Source: Harvard Alumni]

Aside from the privacy concerns, the big question is what will be done with the anonymized data and whether it's worth the costs, modest as they may be.  
Professor King says no one knows the answer to that question. He likens city sensor networks to other scientific projects that held speculative promises until they were actually build at tested.  He uses the Hubble Space Telescope as analogy.  Before it was built, scientists weren't quite sure what kind of objects it would be viewing.  Eventually it became a key tool for hunting extrasolar planets.

Chicago big data
Chicago wants to be called the "city of big data". [Image Source: Urban Dezine]

Professor King states, "You really don't know [what the benefits may be] until you look."

Sources: University of Chicago [press release], UrbDeZine Chicago [blog], The Chicago Tribune, GovTech

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