Ensuring that Smart Cities Don’t Become Surveillance Cities

2019-11-20 - 5 minutes read

On my way to work, I pass no less than three bike-sharing stations. I use an app to track the location of my bus, and likely pass by many traffic intersections where cameras monitor traffic. 

Around the world, smart cities using such technologies are on the rise. Smart cities collect information about you as you move around a city, using tools like traffic cameras, license plate readers, facial recognition software, and more. Data gathered by smart city sensors can help with mobility (e.g., providing traffic control data), improve public safety (e.g., gunshot-detection microphones), and cut costs (e.g., improving resource allocation for public services like lighting). However, smart cities also pose privacy concerns. 

A photo showing a cityscape.

Smart cities are growing, and with this growth comes new opportunities and challenges. Image by Andreas Komodromos and licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Problems with Smart Cities

In a recent Journal of Science Policy & Governance article titled Preventing Surveillance Cities: Developing a Set of Fundamental Privacy Provisions, authors Wajeeha Ahmad and Elizabeth Dethy discuss smart cities. In their article, they share how the sensors used by smart cities can collect a great deal of personal data. As one example, consider the bike-shares I mentioned before. Ahmad and Dethy tell us that “automated bike counters can track thousands of bikes each day or tens of millions of trips per year, using only one type of sensor.” And this is only one type of data collection! Put together, the data gathered from smart cities could be used to create databases that reveal peoples’ sensitive information. In fact, the amount of data collected is such that “[u]nfettered access to smart city data provides authorities with a proverbial time machine, allowing them to go back in time to watch, listen and investigate any event that takes place in public.”

Further, the authors explain that the “deployment of smart city technology could have a chilling effect on citizens’ constitutionally protected freedoms”, such as the rights of free and anonymous expression. Previous research has shown that individuals change their behavior when they are aware they are being monitored. People may also display much more conformist behavior and may self-censor their speech. Mass monitoring also has the potential to be misused to “restrict dissent and democratic rights” the article states. Other key issues with smart cities are that people are unable to opt-out from their data being collected and that this data may be shared with third parties. Additionally, peoples’ data could possibly be exploited by malicious actors.

In terms of existing protections, the authors state that current legislative frameworks and privacy policies are not enough and the “[p]roposed technical solutions are insufficient in the absence of clear policy guidelines”. 

Instead, to help address this issue, Ahmad and Dethy pose a set of five privacy provisions to help protect individuals from the harm caused when using smart city technology while maintaining the benefits of the technology.

5 Privacy Provisions to Implement in Smart Cities

Ahmad and Dethy’s key policy provisions are as follows:

  1. Differentiating personally identifiable data from de-identified data
  2. Creating a warrant requirement for personal smart city data
  3. Prohibiting the sharing of personally identifiable information collected by smart city sensors
  4. Adopting data minimization requirements
  5. Introducing private and public enforcement mechanisms

“Taken together, these provisions can lay the foundation for creating a robust, privacy-protective response to the threats posed by unregulated access to smart city data”, the researchers state. “Our proposed policy recommendations thread the needle – they allow cities to benefit from smart city data while preventing the creation of surveillance cities.”

Further Reading