Privacy in the smart city

26 October 2020

This guest article by Chris Jones of @TurnOnVPN is followed by a response from Lodewijk Noordzij, our digital policy officer at Eurocities.

Our cities are getting smarter. Thanks to a rising confluence of factors including Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, AI and machine learning, and better information and communication systems, European cities are undergoing a shift towards a data-driven model of governance and decision making. The intended result is urban environments that are cleaner, greener, and ultimately more livable.

Smart cities use sensors and other data collection tools to amass vast banks of information. This is then analysed to generate a true picture of the urban environment and how citizens live in and interact with their city. Once data is analysed in this way, it can be used to make changes to better serve the city and its residents. For example, Hangzhou, a city in China managed to reduce traffic jams by 15 per cent after implementing Alibaba’s City Brain project.

Here in Europe, smart city developments have also been put to good use with regards to transportation. In Dublin, Ireland, the pandemic meant limited public transport options, so the city swiftly responded with a walking and cycling-focused mobility plan to keep the traffic, albeit foot and pedal traffic, flowing. In Helsinki, Finland, the smart innovation district Kalasatama aims to save residents an hour every day through the use of smart traffic and transport services.

While many smart city initiatives are focused on traffic, transportation and mobility, these are not the only areas of city life receiving updates and overhauls. In Barcelona, Spain, which is now one of the most connected cities in the world, the government has managed to save around 49 million on water costs through smart IoT deployment strategies. Of course, the financial benefit is just the icing on the cake considering the world’s mismanagement of water resources in the past century.

Meanwhile, in Vienna, Austria, the city has set itself the lofty goal of cutting its per capita greenhouse gases to 80% of its 1990 levels. The city has invested heavily in its Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) project, which generates 1.5 million data sets each day.

Besides functionality, traffic management, and environmental benefits, smart cities should also be safer. Facial recognition technology has been used to provide law enforcement with swift identification and arrest of perpetrators. In London, Met police deployed the technology in February of this year noting that it would help catch people suspected of serious and violent crimes.

For many London residents though, these cameras are essentially tools for mass surveillance, and there is no option to opt-out of being watched, rather the choice is made for citizens. And therein lies one of the crucial issues that all smart city developments must contend with: citizens’ rights to privacy.

Living in a smart city necessarily entails the collection of one’s data, be it how fast you walk along a sidewalk, your parking habits, location, how much water you use in the morning and more. Indeed, without all of this data, municipalities are unable to enact any smart city benefits.

Globally, there have already been several examples of how smart city systems can be used in ways that flaunt privacy rights. In Shenzhen, China, smart cameras know when citizens jaywalk and the citizens who do this are both publicly shamed and instantly fined. In Toronto, Canada, a privacy expert quit a waterfront development project citing concerns over the use of data: “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.”

People living in cities that are moving towards a smart model need to lobby for transparency and data privacy rights, or at least the right for data to be depersonalised and not sold to commercial third parties. A simple VPN download can mitigate some of the surveillance on public wifi networks while opting out of data collection wherever possible offers a means of wrestling back some control.

Ultimately though, smart city developers need to start from a basis of privacy and work towards city goals from here. The EU has already made a solid start to data rights with the GDPR, but it will need to do more in future to encompass the shift to smart city models and life.


Eurocities’ response

Indeed, our cities are getting smarter and this development coincides with the ubiquitous availability and use of data in the public, academic and private spheres. Besides the unprecedented development of data and analytics tooling, heightened use of machine learning and the progress of Artificial Intelligence solutions acting on large data sets, European policy initiatives such as the EU Strategy for data increasingly stimulate the use and relevance of data.

The added value of using data to improve products and services and to develop new ones is widely recognised and broadly demonstrated in public, academic and commercial settings. Data offers unique insights and provides a powerful resource for describing and comprehending processes, predicting outcomes and prescribing effective actions.

The widespread usage of (personal) data by different actors in the smart city ecosystem, however, calls for adequate checks and balances to safeguard citizens interests and manage the value that flows from data.

For people-centered smart cities, guidelines such as the Citizen data principles recognise data generated in public spaces as a public asset and provide a necessary starting point for more socially responsible access to and use of such data by public and private actors. The Declaration of Cities Coalition for Digital Rights addresses transparency, accountability and non-discrimination of data and expresses a crucial commitment for smart cities to responsibly use data and protect citizens fundamental digital rights.

In a society where such principles and guidelines are provided for by policy, implemented by design, and regulated by law, people should be able to feel confident in the ways their personal data is used.