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Smart Cities: Securing Privacy and Meeting Responsibilities

06 Apr 2017

As the number and scope of smart cities grow, so do their responsibilities. Today as technology connects us, it also raises privacy concerns. As digital signage expands its presence and capabilities, we reached out to some of the leading thinkers on their take on privacy in the context of smart cities.

We turned to the Future of Privacy Forum, who bring together companies, government leaders, advocates and academics to advance responsible practices for smart city projects, to see what they had to say.

CEO Jules Polonetsky and Policy Counsel Kelsey Finch share what they have learned after working with city CIOs and companies on a number of smart city projects.

The following was written by Jules Polonetsky and Kelsey Finch.

Successful smart city leaders will be smart on privacy 

Smart Cities - Outdoor Security Camera

Smart cities unite technology platforms with Big Data analytics and government services and promise to use civic data to spark innovation, drive inclusivity, and make urban spaces more efficient, livable, and equitable. At the same time, many of the smart city technologies rely on personal data about individuals and can raise significant privacy and civil liberties issues if appropriate safeguards are not considered at the earliest stages of planning. Local government and community leaders must be forward-thinking and proactive about such concerns and establish thoughtful frameworks for the collection, use, sharing, and disposal of personal data.  

If citizens do not see the benefits of new technologies or mistrust that their information will be protected, they will see new urban sensors and services as tools of discipline and surveillance, rather than transparency and innovation. Alongside Chief Innovation Officers and Chief Technology Officers, leading cities are hiring Chief Privacy Officers and Chief Data officers to make thoughtful decisions about providing appropriate notices, choices, and security measures to protect citizens’ data.

Successful cities will compete to be the most accountable and transparent about how they use data about residents, not just the most technologically advanced.

New technologies and data sources will create tremendous opportunities—but also new risks

Smart Cities - Drones and Robots

The cities of the future may be bursting with new technologies and services – smart cars, buses, and bike share services sharing the streets; drones hovering above to monitor traffic; streetlights that observe noise and air pollution, but also parking availability; public kiosks offering free internet for entire neighborhoods; etc.

However, every one of these technologies – if implemented without serious attention to privacy – threatens to violate individuals’ rights and to upset the balance of power between city governments and city residents. Cities could become dystopic Orwellian states, where the government can see into every home and smartphone, automated systems punish every slight infraction, and individuals are paralyzed by fear in public spaces.

Cities can avoid the negative outcomes by ensuring they conduct thorough privacy impact assessments that identify and mitigate concerns.  Working with the Future of Privacy Forum, for example, the City of Seattle has commissioned a privacy-centered review of its Open Data program. Similar work is also being done by the Cities of San Francisco and Boston, as well as at academic centers like the Harvard Berkman Klein Center and the University of Washington.

As cities increasingly rely on data to automate their decision-making, they must be careful to think holistically about why and how data is being used: bad data can lead to bad policies, even (or especially) in “smart” systems. It is important that smart cities also use these tools to make their environments fairer, and not unfairly distribute resources or inadvertently discriminate against certain communities. City leaders must be constantly vigilant to ensure that new technologies and services serve all of their citizens.

Smart cities will lead the way for smart communities

Smart Cities - Traffic Grid

The goal of local governments, technology developers, and community organizations should be to empower and engage citizens—to “bring them along for the technology ride.” While many technological innovations are emerging first in urban spaces, they hold the potential to transform communities of all shapes and sizes.   But these technologies will only success if voters understood that the technology is serving and improving their community, as opposed to being driven by an impersonal city agenda. 

Smart and data-driven technologies also open up new conversations—and new ways to converse—between community leaders and community residents, creating room for the cultural growth and democratic impulses that have caused modern cities to flourish. Through open data programs, hackathons, participatory governance, and innovative community engagement processes, local governments are giving individuals new ways to interact with their own data, communities, and environment. When individuals have more control of their data for their own purposes, it promotes a culture of data-driven decision-making, civic participation, and empowerment.

Some projects will clearly need express participation of residents, but in other cases, individual consent may not be feasible.  In those cases, project leaders will need to demonstrate that they are considering the needs of the community.  They can do so with advisory boards that represent affected stakeholders, with surveys and with online tools that encourage community feedback. Chicago’s Array of Things Community Engagement work has demonstrated the range of online and offline methods that can be used to incorporate community feedback into a data sensitive project.

If city leaders, technology providers, community organizations, and other stakeholders work together to address core privacy issues and principles, they will be able to leverage the benefits of a data-rich society while minimizing threats to individual privacy and civil liberties.

Follow the Future of Privacy Forum on Twitter here. You can also learn more on the subject with their interactive infographic on smart city privacy.

Follow Jules Polonetsky on Twitter here.

Follow Kelsey Finch on Twitter here.

Want more on smart cities? 

Smart Cities: Nine Expert Predictions, where we speak to three experts in their field about what the smart city of the future will be like.

Smart Cities: Beyond the Technology to People and Process, where Florence Engasser of Nesta—an innovation-focused foundation—shares her thoughts on the relationships between citizens and policymakers, experimentation, and inclusivity in smart cities.

Bas Boorsma on Smart Cities Week.

Interview with Sandra Baer on how smart cities are disrupting urban spaces.