From the runway at Newark Liberty International Airport, you can see the entire skyline of Manhattan. It is one of the busiest airports on the continent, so you'd expect it would have a strong and sizeable surveillance operation.

But forget about traditional security cameras. Passengers streaming out of taxis and through check-in are being watched by the lighting system.

The airport has installed 171 "smart" LED lighting fixtures, attached to the ceiling, that peer down and record the movements of passengers and staff.

They're incredible pieces of technology: Sure they illuminate, and use much less energy than other lights. But each lighting fixture also has computing and networking capabilities. The system includes cameras and sensors that feed data into it.

The airport won't discuss the system's full capabilities, but we know it can monitor licence plates of cars entering the departure area or the parking lots. If a person walks between cars, rather than from a car to the terminal, the lighting system generates an alert. This could be a sign of someone stealing from cars, rather than a legitimate passenger.

Smart Lighting

The new LED lights at the Newark airport use much less energy than other lights. But each lighting fixture also has computing and networking capabilities. The system is also equipped with cameras and sensors that feed data into it. (David Common/CBC)

"LED lights are semi-conductors so they're effectively like a personal computer," said Hugh Martin, chairman and CEO Sensity Solutions, the company that makes the lighting system. 

"So if you're installing the light...the labour to get up there is like $150 for this installation. So while you're up there you might as well add just add a little bit more cost and put in sensors and radio and basically a computer so you can gather this information."

Bag left unattended? The lights will see it and warn security guards.

Street corners, shopping malls

Hold off on the excitement for just a minute.

Imagine if the lighting system were not at an airport, where there is an expectation of being watched, but on a public street corner.

Surveillance systems can be bundled into a lighting package that costs less than a standard streetlight to operate. The lights can detect when cars or pedestrians are nearby, and dim the power if they're not. 

In the future, shopping malls could read licence plates as cars arrive, and send an alert to the driver's smartphone showing available parking spaces, or a coupon for a store where they're known to shop.

The system could watch you. It might also also be able to record audio of your private conversations. Would police need a search warrant to access that information?

Hugh Martin of Sensity Solutions

Hugh Martin, chairman and CEO of Sensity Solutions, says his company's smart lighting systems can be used to track criminal activity or even measure snow near a lamppost to let the city know which areas need to be plowed. (David Common/CBC)

"You can obviously use it if you wanted to keep track of criminal activity," Martin said. "You could also use it to see how deep the snow is around the area of the light to let the city know, for instance, where they should be plowing."

Fred Cate, who studies the conflicts between privacy and technology at the University of Indiana, suggested the technology could be used to profile people's destinations and activities "indiscriminately." The information could later be used in ways that might affect them in "totally different environments, for example insurance or employment-related activities," he added.

"Obviously," he said, "this technology is going to be incredibly privacy invasive."