Why Smart Cities Threaten Citizens’ Right to Privacy

By |2020-11-18T08:09:48+01:00November 18th 2020|Global Urban Debates, Smart & Digital Development, , , |

The concept of Smart Cities heavily relies on collecting enormous amounts of citizens’ data – and thus raises concerns as to what this data can be used for. Brad Smith on dangers, potentials, and everyday means to protect one’s privacy.

In 2019, Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs announced a project that aimed to convert Toronto into a smart city. After meeting heavy resistance from citizens due to privacy concerns, it scaled down its goal – and its spatial extent, from 190 acres to 12 acres in Toronto’s Waterfront area. Another half a year later, the project shut down: the COVID19 pandemic and continued pushback from privacy-concerned citizens killed the project.
In the past two decades, many smart cities have cropped up throughout the world, and Toronto seems like a prime target for conversion. But why? What benefits do smart cities bring? And are they really that harmful to citizens’ privacy?

The Recent Growth of Smart Cities

What do smart cities do differently than other cities? The definition varies from organisation to organisation, expert to expert. But the simple definition of smart cities would be: a city that uses devices and other types of technology (such as sensors) to gather data, improve the life of citizens, and manage resources efficiently and effectively.

Many major cities working have been working towards the smart city status throughout the past decades. For example, the Singapore Smart Nation, a project that strives to incorporate technology into Singapore’s public transport, housing, infrastructure, and other sectors using data analytics and smart technologies. For example, on-demand shuttles and contactless fare payment make public transport more accessible, and data analytics help architects build more-efficient buildings – ones designed with smart technology in mind.

Similarly, Poland prides itself on its smart cities, such as Gdynia and, in the future, Krakow and Warsaw. Point is, smart cities have become an achievable goal for many countries. And as time goes on, the number of smart cities will grow in number and size.

What do Smart Cities Promise?

Smart Cities benefit citizens and the government in several ways.

Environmental Impact

Climate change affects everyone. As a matter of fact, most of the world is already experiencing the results of man-made climate change. While there are many initiatives to reduce cities’ environmental footprint on the individual-level, smart cities sport a notably-reduced environmental footprint.

A McKinsey Global Institute report shows that smart cities tend to have less greenhouse gas emissions, produce less waste, and save more water per person.
Smart cities achieve these results with multiple tools. Technology companies work with the government to urge citizens to act. An example of this would be New York City using smart maps to point citizens to the closest polling booths for the election, as well as collecting data on disabled voters to ensure all polling places met their needs. Data collection and sensors helps improve the efficiency of basic infrastructure. All of this results in a smaller environmental footprint.

Reduction in Crime

Smart cities have the potential to reduce crime: according to a report from 2018, smart technology – if implemented correctly – could reduce crime by 30 to 40 per cent. This is due to, for example, improvements in communication technology that help departments communicate more efficiently and allow emergency services to respond quicker. Also, an interconnected city makes it more difficult for criminals to act due to tightened security, cameras, and various other methods.

Privacy Concerns Surrounding Smart Cities

Despite these advantages, smart city projects have met resistance similar to the one Sidewalk Labs attempted to develop in Toronto. This is because, despite considerable improvements in most areas, the concept of smart cities threatens the right to privacy of citizens everywhere.
But what exactly is it about smart cities that makes citizens fear for their privacy? Well, the entire concept of smart cities lies in data collection. That is, the collection of data in every facet of a city, from traffic to pedestrians to crime to education, and the list goes on.
Because of this constant data collection, people fear the loss of privacy. After all, how can citizens maintain a right to privacy when their privacy in itself is constantly being threatened, if not destroyed entirely? So, if the improvements smart cities bring come at the cost of privacy, it comes down to the central question: is there anything that can be done?

The Future of Smart Cities and Privacy

Smart cities are the future – there’s no denying that. Like in other industries before, technology will continue to intertwine with city services and infrastructure until most major cities can be categorised as a smart city.

But if governments hope to respect their citizens’ right to privacy, standards will need to be set. Governments and businesses will need to work together and install security safeguards for citizens. City services will need to be careful about collecting data, ensuring that citizens are warned of future data collection and analysis. For instance, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) restricted the use of facial recognition in smart cities. Privacy standards for future Public Private Partnership’s need to keep the citizen’s privacy in mind, building technology and infrastructure around citizens’ need for privacy and security.
Laws will need to be passed. Regulations will need to become standard. Data collection will need to be limited to essential services only. If citizens want to keep their right to privacy, they will need to strive for change in not only how their cities work, but how governments treat their right to privacy.

California jumped ahead of the curve by introducing the California Consumer Privacy Act, a law that prevents undisclosed sharing and collecting of consumer data. And, again, the EU’s GDPR set a good foundation for smart cities in the EU.

However, citizens will still need to protect themselves in smart cities – after all, regulations and laws take time to pass, and smart city projects only wait for further funding. Citizens can, for example, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to ensure their safety when they connect to public networks, or they can limit what data they access while out in public, and in general be careful of what devices they use. There are plenty of ways for citizens to protect themselves and ensure their privacy, and these methods will be required as time goes on.

Brad Smith
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