Smart Cities: Life Optimization or Invasion of Privacy?

In November 2017, a group associated with Bill Gates invested $80 million in a high-tech planned development outside of Phoenix, Arizona. The smart city is set to be designed around high-speed networks, autonomous vehicles, high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies, and autonomous logistics hubs.

“Envisioning future infrastructure from scratch is far easier and more cost efficient than retrofitting an existing urban fabric.”
— Grady Gammage, a spokesman for the Belmont Partners venture

How many time have you hit every green light on your way to work or approached an intersection on foot just as the walk sign begins to flash? If you’re like most people, then your answer is probably never. Imagine if it was possible to catch the bus right on time every day, time the green lights perfectly and ensure you never had to wait to cross an intersection.

Hundreds of Silicon Valley companies are already collecting and analyzing data in hopes of developing tools to help streamline our daily lives. The idealized culmination of these analyses is the smart city: a place where everyone hits every green light and always catches their bus.

What is a smart city?

Smart city is the term for a city that uses technology and data collection to more efficiently provide its citizens with utilities and services. Smart cities will rely on the constant collection of data to determine what roads are heavily used, where traffic jams occur, and how long drivers wait at traffic lights. Analysts can review this data and then propose changes to roads or traffic light timing to reduce time spent in traffic for everyone. This data may also be used to incentivize traveling outside of high traffic times, to design better public transportation, or to refine development of autonomous vehicles.

Applying data analysis to traffic patters in just one of many ways a city could be “smart.” Analysts may any number of community resources and utilities, including water, electricity, trash collection, hospitals, and law enforcement. By monitoring and measuring patterns of use, these resources can be optimized to ensure optimal service at a minimal cost.

How does a smart city work?

Most modern traffic lights are equipped with inductive loops to detect when a car is stopped at an intersection waiting for the light to turn green. Since many drivers already use their smartphones to navigate from point A to point B, a smart stoplight would be able to capture signals from the drivers’ smartphone and predict the car’s arrival, allowing the light to turn green just as the driver approaches the intersection. This interaction between two different types of technologies to streamline daily life is one of the key components of a successful smart city.

Smart cities will rely on constant data collection and analysis to streamline inhabitants’ daily lives. For example, imagine there is a turning lane you used to get to your favorite concert venue. The lane will likely be busy in the hours before a big event, but probably not during or after. Smart cities would monitor traffic patterns at this intersection and develop algorithms to predict when the lane will be heavily used. Using this data and a schedule of concerts, the turning lane could “learn” to stay on longer right before an event to facilitate the flow of traffic. Additionally, public transportation may schedule more stops to the venue before the concert and away from it after. Amsterdam has already implemented a smart traffic management program and has reported a 10% decrease in time spent in traffic, along with plans to soon connect in-car navigation equipment in the future.

The city of Santa Cruz, California has turned to data in an effort to predict and prevent crime. A local mathematician discovered that home burglaries and car thefts tended to occur in waves. Through analysis of 11 years of data, an algorithm predicted where crimes may occur and when, ultimately resulting in a reduction in property crime. The algorithm correctly predicted crime 2.6% better than professional crime analysts, and this predictive policing is expected to continually improve as more data is collected.

Would you give up privacy for improved security?

While smart city technologies promise to improve lives, many critics are concerned about privacy. Questions arise about who owns the data, what the data will be used for, and how personalized the data is. Every day — just through our smartphones, credit cards, et cetera — we leave behind digital footprints, which are recorded thousands of times each day and stored somewhere in the cloud.

Recently, the company Renew London received criticism for technology that aimed to place a sensor on trash bins to detect the WiFi signals from the smartphones of passersby. While this information could be used to track trash bin usage and better manage trash pickup, the company actually used the information to track an individual’s route through the city to target advertisements to them.

Although linking the GPS on smartphones to traffic lights may improve traffic flow, this act would require drivers to consent to providing data on their vehicle location. How would you feel if your phone carrier, government and other third parties were all tracking your questionable late-night decisions? In Singapore, such plans are already underway in an initiative called “Smart Nation.” The program will require cars to have GPS systems monitor their location, speed and direction, allowing for automatic charging of any parking fees and tickets. Yet, this also represents real-time tracking of every citizen with a car, so there is a large concern around how this data is to be protected. If the amassed data isn’t properly secured, it could be vulnerable to hackers.

The smart city offers incredible possibilities for improving our daily lives, but also prompts many new questions about data management and privacy. A recent poll in the US found that 84% of respondents were concerned about the privacy of their personal information, and this concern is on the rise. The concern was higher among younger respondents, yet more than a third of 18- to 24-year-olds were passionate about their city becoming “smarter.”

The people’s representatives will reach their destination, invested with the highest confidence and unlimited power. They will show great character. They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power. To their energy, to their courage, and above all to their prudence, they shall owe their success and their glory.
— French National Convention, 1793

Or, as Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt and Spider-man would say: “With great power comes great responsibility.” While there is certainly some enthusiasm surrounding smart cities, there are also reservations about privacy as well. Many people feel jaded after banks, social media giants, and their government have mishandled their most personal details. To improve peoples’ lives, smart cities will need to be smart with privacy, too.

In addition to privacy, we must also carefully consider the psychology of these new technological advancements. People are already heavily distracted by technology, sometimes endangering themselves and others by texting while driving. Modern cars are already outfitted with GPS trackers, Bluetooth capability and more. Though incredible tools, I know people who are so dependent on their GPS that they can’t navigate to the nearby grocery store without assistance. I fear that additional tools of convenience will breed impatience, distraction and further technological dependence. If this new technology allows me to hit every green light, will I even pay attention enough to stop at the red light if someone traveling perpendicular to me reaches the intersection first?

Have you seen the film Minority Report, where Tom Cruise’s character is hunted down for a crime he has not yet committed? Early studies show that the capacity to predict criminal behavior is not as far-reaching as it seemed in 2002 when the movie was released. AI is already being employed in India to detect “behavioral abnormalities” that signal someone is about to commit a violent crime. While the program may be able to prevent sexual assault and violent attacks, there is also the chance that it will falsely flag someone who is enthusiastically waving at a friend as one wielding a knife. When the authorities arrive, would they trust the AI program or the supposed perpetrator?

China is rife with facial-recognition scanners, which track toilet paper usage, shame jaywalking and more. In Jinan, traffic-management authorities have mounted cameras above one of the city’s busiest intersections to snap pictures and videos of jaywalkers. The photos immediately appear on an overhead screen so the offended and everyone around them can see that he or she has been busted. Within 20 minutes, snippets of the perpetrator’s ID number and home address are displayed on the crosswalk screen, and sometimes on the local police department’s social media account. The occurrence of jaywalkers has since decreased from 200 occurrences per day to 20, but at what cost?

The marriage of AI to networks that are ubiquitous of webcams is starting to generate more anxiety about privacy and personal liberty. We live in an asymmetrical world, where just a few companies and public institutions know a lot about us, while we know very little about them.

Possible Measures to Ensure Data Privacy

Perhaps the best strategy to combat potential misuse of collected data is for future smart city government and organizations to implement and more transparent and flexible “data contract” between individuals, companies and governments. Technology moves fast, so it’s vital that legislative keeps up. An example of this idea put into action is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which requires that all businesses within the European Union share what kind of data they collect from residents and gain individuals’ consent for its use (though interestingly, it does not address data collection by governments). The law also allows EU citizens to opt out and be “forgotten,” or to have personal data — everything from your mobile device ID to your genetic sequence — removed from any database if they no longer feel there is a compelling reason to keep it.

As an individual, you can keep future smart city initiatives transparent by taking advantage of the new new rules, thereby putting pressure on companies that collect large amounts of data today. Just as you vote with you dollar, you vote with your data. If you choose to opt out of unnecessary data collection, location monitoring and facial recognition initiatives, you may miss out of a bit of convenience today. However, opting out may protect your data from misuse in the short run. The compounding result of a many people demanding transparency is policy change.

What Are Your Thoughts on Smart Cities?

What do you think of smart cities? Would you be open to your city adopting new technologies, or move to a different city that was?

Would you worry about you privacy and the security of your personal data? Or would the inherent convenience of personalized technology outweigh the possible risks?

4 thoughts on “Smart Cities: Life Optimization or Invasion of Privacy?

  1. “Smart cities” will be enclaves for the rich, zoos where the well-off will wall themselves away from the rest thus a self-defeating quest. As to privacy, when we grow up and choose to become compassionate beings, developing our empathy towards all of life, giving up on our competitive madness and our obsolete predatory nature, privacy will no longer be an issue.


    1. Wow, brilliantly put! I agree that “smart cities” will be a prime destination for the wealthy, and a self-defeating quest in that it will fostering further division. I had never considered the idea that concerns around privacy will dissipate when we all evolve into compassionate beings, but really appreciate that. I truly hope I’ll one day see a world in which empathy dominates and people act selflessly towards all other forms of life. Seeing the greed of large corporations makes me sad, and I pray that all those at the “top” can find compassion in their heart… no only for privacy reasons, but to create a domino effect of love and empathy across the globe. That would be a beautiful place to live.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It definitely freaks me out. Not many people seem to really worry, though. I feel like the only one that is awake at the wheel. The rest are zombies. But that is because of comfort. Anything is given up just for that. For an easier, quicker access to something they want. A shortcut.


    1. Yes, I think the average person is looking for convenience. But, at what cost? Privacy, security, that data point of their face or fingertip?
      As great as these ideas are in theory, hackers are so advanced and systems brought too market so soon that everything is vulnerable. It’s one thing to have your computer susceptible to security issues…it’s another to have you computer, TV, thermostat, fitness tracker, vehicle, phone, apps, credit cards, and more. We give out a lot of personal data, and I worry that there aren’t yet security measures in place to handle the rapidly-advancing technologies.

      Liked by 1 person

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