Smart Cities – Not So Smart Privacy

It is estimated that by 2020 large cities in both developed and developing countries will be spending in the region of $760 billion on collecting and managing data in order to optimize the functioning of various aspects that are part and parcel of the management of the urban sprawl that we call todays mega cities. However, do these ‘smart cities’ pose a clear threat to citizens in terms of their right to privacy? At issue is the fact that no public comment is sought when the various systems are rolled out – there is no way for anyone to opt out of the systematic collection of data that is sourced from cameras and sensors imbedded in the structures controlled  by the city authorities.  It is true that there are regulatory authorities in certain legislations that seek to govern how data collected like this is used – however in the face of the march of progress and the ever increasing complexities of urban management even they must take into account the fact that the rise of the Smart City is inevitable.

This inevitability is driven not only by the fact that a vast urban metropolis is tremendously complex to manage – but also that new global threats have come to the fore. The increasingly global nature of terrorism and the requirements for national security dictate that the Smart City is now an absolute necessity. Authorities simply have to gather and collate, as well as manage data in order to keep citizens of these cities safe and secure.

Smart city solutions

The reasoning behind the collection of the data is, at least on the face of it compelling. For companies like IBM which is at the forefront of the move towards smarter cities it’s all about finding ‘new ways for the city to work.’ That’s a snappier way of expressing what the British Department for Business Innovation and Skills defines as ‘applying digital technologies to address social, environmental and economic goals.’

The Smart City cannot be viewed a megalithic entity – the sheer number of solutions that power the modern urban metropolis are staggering in their variety. Technology and infrastructure companies offer complete solutions to cities – from the backbone to other products and services that assist the managers of the Smart City to optimize the services that they offer citizens. These solutions can run a gamut of management options – from those controlling energy applications and transport system to policing and monitoring. Optimizing all of these services often means connecting various government departments to ensure fast and efficient data flow. It also often includes apps which allow Smart City residents to report criminal activity, or even something as simple as a malfunctioning traffic light.

Privacy concern with smart cities

Although on the face of it Smart Cities may seem like an optimized way to manage and control data flow and gathering for the good of all that call the urban environment home. In reality there are some fairly serious problems with the approach, especially when it comes to issues like privacy.

Cities like Singapore have extremely advanced Smart City suites which allow for efficient data collection and management of the many moving parts that make up the systems which keep the modern city from ticking over – that comes at a cost which is not only monetary.

In the Smart City of the 21st century, it is extremely rare that the average citizen will be asked to ‘opt in’ or consent to being monitored on a constant basis. The moment they set foot outside their homes they automatically are viewed having provided consent for the collection of data and the processing and sharing of data among government entities. The data collection is ubiquitous – but most citizens are not even aware that it is happening.


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