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Privacy concerns over Singapore’s sensor-packed smart lampposts

Image credit: DT

Singapore will start installing smart lampposts in the near future which boast an array of sensors and cameras that will allow authorities to recognise individual faces in a crowd.

But the plan is raising privacy fears among security experts and rights groups. The government said the system would allow it to “perform crowd analytics” and support anti-terror operations.

The ‘Lamppost-as-a-Platform’ (LaaP) pilot project is scheduled to begin next year and will see upgrades to lighting fixtures across the city state.

The government is planning to add a range of sensors to the lampposts and will kit them all out with LED bulbs, which promise a much greater lifespan and cheaper running costs.

The sensors will be able to detect the temperature, humidity, rainfall, pollutants and even noise in the area around them.

They will also brighten or dim depending on the ambient light in the local area or weather conditions.

Artificial intelligence will then be used to allow for closer monitoring of the urban environment and should allow faster responses to incidents and safer footpaths and roads for drivers and pedestrians.

GovTech, the Singapore government agency in charge of the project, has given companies until May to register their interest in providing technology for the network.

“As part of the LaaP trial, we are testing out various kinds of sensors on the lampposts, including cameras that can support backend facial recognition capabilities,” a GovTech spokesman said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

“These capabilities may be used for performing crowd analytics and supporting follow-up investigation in event of a terror incident.”

Singapore says the project is part of a broader ‘Smart Nation’ plan to use cutting-edge technology to improve people’s lives and has pledged to be sensitive to privacy.

Video-surveillance networks are common in cities like London or New York. However, Ian Wilson, a security lecturer at Australia’s Murdoch University, said he believed that Singapore’s would be different in that it might involve extensive facial recognition technology.

Such technology has become commonplace in Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Some top officials in Singapore played down the privacy concerns.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last week that the Smart Nation project was aimed at improving people’s lives and that he did not want it done in a way “which is overbearing, which is intrusive, which is unethical”.

The spokesman for GovTech said: “The need to protect personal data and preserve privacy are key considerations in the technical implementation of the project.”

GovTech did not say how many lampposts would be used in the initial pilot project, but a former head of Singapore’s civil service, Peter Ong, said last year that the country aims to bring all of its 110,000 lampposts into the sensor network.

Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the US-based rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, urged Singapore and other governments not to adopt facial-recognition surveillance technology.

He said he was concerned such technology could be turned on political opponents or used to curb free speech by deterring peaceful protest. Facial recognition technology typically allows authorities to match people picked up on cameras with those in databases.

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