Are Smart Cities Invading Our Privacy?

Privacy has been a hot topic of debate in recent times. In light of controversial events such as the ‘leaking’ of celebrity nudes and Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, a lot people have become much more aware of the implications technology presents to the security of their personal information. Hence it is quite understandable that some people are legitimately scared of this prospect of having everything and everyone connected to the internet.

The way we interact with our environment tells us a lot about ourselves. The meta data produced by a city of sensors could actually prove to be a greater intrusion of privacy than if we were each simply being filmed 24/7. If the petabytes of confidential data thrown into the ether by networked sensors recording every detail of our environment and our movements are not secure, then the privacy of all city-dwellers may be open to compromise.

By taking a step back and putting smart cities aside for a moment, we are able to have a much clearer view of what the root fear here actually is. Firstly, looking at the mobile phone industry, the number of active mobile phone services almost outnumbers that of the entire human population on earth. So what. Well, if you break a modern-day phone down into its individual components this statistic actually reveals quite a lot. nophone.pngA smartphone is literally an internet connected, voice recording, GPS tracking device that we use to store a bunch of our sensitive data such as calendars, contacts, passwords, photos, and communication logs. Not only has all of this been proven vulnerable to exploitation, but we have literally been given proof that it is already being actively and consistently exploited. And yet, the widespread use of smartphones is actually GROWING! Even further to this, wearable technology is a new massively growing trend. People are actually buying and wearing watches and accessories that physically connect them to the internet!

So what does this tell us about our so-called fear of privacy? It tells us that most humans are more than willing to sacrifice their privacy in exchange for convenience and efficiency – even if some do enjoy grumbling about it in the process (usually on the internet, ironically). With this in mind, are smart cities really going to generate that much more personally identifiable information than we are already freely giving out? The answer is no. The data produced by smart cities are, in general, designed to give information about the population as a whole as opposed to individuals.

There is, however, one key difference between smartphones and smart cities. No one is really forced to buy a smartphone. With smart cities on the other hand, the average citizen may not get quite as much of a personal say in what data is or isn’t collected about them. This is where the focus needs to be placed. According to the chief globalisation officer at Cisco, Wim Elfink, “we have to first give the citizens the right to opt-in or opt-out [of the use of their data]”. I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment.

Citizens need to first be reassured that the smart technologies being introduced into their cities are about making the government more transparent and making their lives better. Not the other way around. Cities are for people, and we need to ensure we keep this in mind when rolling out any new technology. If the people don’t feel safe or comfortable, then nothing should be done until they do. After all, if a product you know nothing about is forced upon you, could you trust it?

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