Smart Cities Are Surveillance Cities

Many cities around the world are transforming into “smart cities” – a term that describes an urban area that uses technology such as IoT sensors, and big data for multiple purposes such as improved operations, safety, and efficiency. Public municipal Wi-Fi is the part of the fuel powering this connectivity, as it is widely deployed in cities around the globe, connecting citizens and the city. Smart technology is being used in waste management, water and power operations, transportation, and crowd control. And in what is becoming a staple of smart cities, facial recognition technology in cameras around cities are also being integrated and leveraged as part of public safety and crowd control efforts by law enforcement.

You may have already heard about the recently unveiled Hudson Yards, New York’s $20 billion development on Manhattan’s West Side, the largest private real estate development in the history of the city. As part of their initiative to integrate technology with daily living, biometrics and apps are now replacing apartment keys for home access. 

Another smart city initiative making headlines is an effort by Sidewalk Labs, a division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Sidewalk Labs is currently building a connected city called Quayside on the waterfront on Toronto. Some of the smart technology in Quayside will control heated tiles on rooftops and heated sidewalks that will melt ice during cold weather. Rain protection will cover public areas during a storm, LED lights would direct traffic, and all-year common spaces can be adapted to different uses depending on data collected by Sidewalk Labs.

But while these futuristic technologies in smart cities sound great on paper, dig a little deeper and you’ll see that smart cities are quickly becoming another avenue that allows governments and companies to invade your privacy. 

How smart cities are leveraging technology 

Smart cities are increasingly in popularity globally. The smart city industry is projected to be a $400 billion market by 2020, with 600 cities worldwide, according to Citywise.

Governments are recognizing the benefits of using technology in many aspects of operations. One example of an extremely advanced smart city is Singapore. Officials there are using technology in many aspects of city management, including:

  • Traffic flow: Citizens can access traffic information through a public portal with data collected from surveillance cameras installed on roads and taxi vehicles using GPS. 
  • Parking control: A smart service provides drivers with real-time information on parking availability around the city. 
  • Waste management: Smart waste bins with monitors attached on bin lids collect information on contents and location, with the information transmitted to a garbage team through a central server. The waste collection team can optimize their route planning with the information provided by the sensors.
  • Security: Over 100,000 surveillance cameras have been installed around Singapore at most of its intersections, alongside streets, beneath alcoves, and on street poles in an effort to prevent crime, identify criminals, and maintain safety around the city.

Smart city technologies and programs have also been implemented in Dubai, Milton Keynes, Southampton, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Stockholm, China, and New York, to name a few.

Are smart cities a good thing?

While the convenience and efficiency gained from the use of smart technology is undoubtedly beneficial, we haven’t stopped to ask about the cost citizens are paying for these improvements? Privacy is taking a backseat to smart city development as the technology collects scores of data about people, without any public review or regulation of what is being collected and how it’s being used. 

In China, the use of this data is used to create social profiles on citizens and the government monitors political and social behavior as a way to control the right to travel, to obtain education, and to obtain housing. There are many questions around the long-term repercussions of massive data collection on citizens, and the lack of transparency about its use in other smart cities. There are also security implications as data collection and storage also sets up the potential for a costly data breach. Much like businesses suffer large-scale breaches that expose sensitive data, so too can cities who collect this information about people.

Cities and government are already high-risk targets for hackers and nation-state cyber criminals. That risk shoots up dramatically when its known that a smart city is sitting on a trove of personal data.

When smart cities backfire

While the idea of using cameras, sensors, facial recognition technology, and, other tools to minimize crime, control crowds, and improve other aspects of life sounds appealing, it comes at a price. The information gathered is not only collected without explicit consent, but it can also be used against us. 

For an example of how this data is being used for unethical means, take a look at China’s rapidly expanding surveillance practice, which is used to track citizens’ daily movements and smartphone use. According to reporting from the New York Times, Chinese authorities are using a secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority.  The technology looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review. The Uighurs have also been detained by the Chinese government and been sent to “re-education centers” which many activists have likened to modern-day concentration camps.

China is also exporting their surveillance technology to other countries, such as Ecuador, where law enforcement is using high-powered cameras to scan the streets for drug deals and other criminal activity. But a New York Times investigation found that the footage also goes to the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which has a track record of human rights abuse and political intimidation.

Under the pretext of security and law enforcement, political dissidents and journalists are being targeted, censored, and even kidnapped. The ability to monitor, track and surveil people in smart cities has already shown that it has a dark side that is exploited by unaccountable institutions and governments with frequent human rights abuses.

Should we give up on smart cities?

The goal of smart cities is energy savings, convenience, safety, and better living, and they hold real potential to improve lives and enhance city management. But concerns over privacy in smart cities should be an important consideration before blindly using tech that can infringe on a populations’ rights.  Both government and citizens need to take an active in role in demanding transparency and openness in smart city projects, and insist privacy controls are baked into the outset of technological development.

There are efforts by several non-partisan groups, including the ACLU  and The Sunlight Foundation, to advocate for strong oversight of government data collection and push for transparency and accountability. The Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) campaign led by the ACLU has resulted in the passage of seven local CCOPS laws that require this type of needed oversight by the public and our elected officials. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association recently began proceedings against Waterfront Toronto and several levels of the Canadian government over the Quayside project, noting concerns about privacy.

The frank truth is that we are far from striking a balance between the convenience and benefits these cities can offer us and the massive amounts of data collection about us in that experience.  In a recent interview on Hudson Yards, the project’s developer noted his organization had no defined parameters around how long they would keep data collected on residents and visitors. Unless those who stand to profit off of smart cities also keep our best interests in mind, we need to demand answers to questions about how our privacy is being considered in these projects.

Developers and government officials need to make clear:

  • What data is being collected and how?
  • How will the data collected from smart city technology be used?
  • Will it be shared (or sold) to third parties?
  • How long will the data be retained?
  • How is the data being stored and secured? Is it anonymized?
  • Will there be an option to “opt out” of having one’s data collected and used?
  • How practical is it for an individual to opt-out? We can’t ask people to move out of a city in order to opt out. 
  • What will the communication policy be around the use of the data and how it is collected?

These are just some initial questions that should be answered. Before we can be comfortable with smart city development, we need transparency across these initiatives to ensure they aren’t infringing upon our privacy rights.

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