Mayor: No ‘Big Brother’ In Village

Susan Gottehrer, Nassau County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, spoke about the village’s switch to LED lighting at the Nov. 21 meeting. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

George Orwell’s 1984 is in vogue again, and the phrase made famous in that novel has crept up in several recent Village of Great Neck Board of Trustees meetings. To it, you can add a modern term, “the Internet of things.” And it all stems from the village’s decision to upgrade its streetlight array to an LED-bulb system, replacing decades-old sodium-vapor illumination.

Resident Judy Shore Rosenthal, a vociferous critic of the changeover, used the term “Big Brother” at the Oct. 3 meeting. That evening, she took issue with the proposed installation of the Smart Cities pilot program that would be implemented along with the new light array. She felt residents had not been properly informed of the surveillance implications of the system as described by the managers of the changeover, RealTerm Energy.

The consultants recommended that smart hubs be installed at each pole, enabling lights to be individually controlled via a central management system. One advantage is that it would give more detailed information of actual electrical usage, and along with the more efficient LED lighting, reduce utility costs. RealTerm would finance the program software and help manage the system.

Mark Carter of RealTerm, at his August presentation, said there could be a number of applications for the smart controls with added software, including monitoring the speeds of cars and traffic counters. He even mentioned traffic cameras as a potential use.

That last possibility raised the hackles of Rosenthal and her partner in opposing the switch to LEDs, Amy Glass.

The pair contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the organization sent Susan Gottehrer, its Nassau County chapter director, to the Nov. 21 meeting.

Gottehrer suggested the trustees ask some questions about both the motivations of the consultants and open government processes by which the decision had been arrived at.

“Regarding power over the governed, the issue here is consent, consent to be governed and to be surveilled,” she said. “To let the government know and have access to information that shows patterns of our lives—where we go and who we associate with.”

Gottehrer added, “Consent is not possible without participation in decision making. So we encourage you, the trustees, to make sure that the processes around procurement of technology are as open to the public as possible, and solicitous of technology and privacy experts as well. The NYCLU would be happy to work with you in developing best practices and policies moving forward.”

Gottehrer expressed skepticism about RealTerm, and the LED streetlighting system.

“Many of these systems are new, and many opportunistic profit-making industries have sprung up around the country,” she pointed out. “We recommend great caution and a healthy skepticism and investigation when dealing with vendors.”

She suggested that vendors over-promise on technology, counting on decision makers’ lack of knowledge.

“We believe this might be the case on the part of RealTerm Energy,” Gottehrer asserted. “A survey of their website and parent company reveals that neither company has an extensive track record with the Smart Cities pilot system. It appears that RealTerm is basically a management group. In other words, a middleman, rather than a direct vendor.”

Gottehrer brought up security breaches and hacks of what has been called the “Internet of things,” which includes such common items as “smart” refrigerators and stoves, and home-security systems.

“Studies show that approximately 60 percent of ‘Internet of things’ systems fail, including Smart Cities,” she said.

Gottehrer concluded, “The public has expertise it can share to help public officials navigate the medical issues associated with LED lights, the privacy and technology issues associated with surveillance, and the financial private sector issues associated with opportunistic profit-driven companies and a brand new, barely regulated industry. In closing, if there are questions and concerns that I have raised that either the elected officials or residents in this room don’t understand, then you are functioning at a knowledge deficit, which precludes the possibility of full consent and transparency.”

None of the village officials responded when Gottehrer finished speaking.

At previous meetings, Mayor Pedram Bral and other trustees had rejected the critics’ arguments—including allegations of negative health impacts of LEDs—and pointed out that the public had been kept informed during the two-year process by which the decision to switch had been made, and that the board had exercised due diligence.

Bral told the Great Neck Record that the ACLU had missed the meetings at which the process of picking the vendors and the presentation on Smart Cities technology had been made. The village is only planning to use the technology to monitor and control the lights, he pointed out.

“There’s not going to be any sound or any videos [for surveillance],” Bral said. “We’re going to be using the program to, for example, dim the lights during a snowstorm so as to reduce glare or brighten the lights during an accident.”

Asked if he rejected the “Big Brother” label charged by Rosenthal and implied in Gottehrer’s presen-tation, Bral responded, “Yes. There is no sound. There is no video. People must stop creating fear. We don’t have that technology. So, no Big Brother.”

Resident David Zielenziger has attended the last several meetings to ask when the installation of LED lights would start. It has been repeatedly delayed.

Village Clerk–Treasurer Joe Gill assured him that the process would begin soon and all 832 lights would be in place before the end of the year.

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