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Smart-City-Privacy-–-Potential-Challenges-as-Our-Cities-Become-More-Connected
Illustration by Anders

As he monitors the city, a notification begins blinking on John’s screen.

Alert: Irregular activity. Bin #117 is close to capacity.

Checking the bin’s history log reveals that it was emptied just yesterday. Predictive analytics indicate that it shouldn’t need to be emptied again for at least another week.

Perplexed, John enters the map view and sees that the trash bin is next to a city park. Maybe someone’s hosting an event? But a quick search through the city’s event permits doesn’t turn up anything.

John decides to check Twitter.

Party!!! The storm of tweets make it pretty clear what’s going on. John accesses a nearby security camera to be sure.

Yup. About 100–150 under-age drinkers having a party in the city park.

John presses a button to automatically dispatch police.

This isn’t the future, it’s now.

I recently attended an event called Smart Cities: How IoT is Making Our Streets and Citizens Safer where I had the opportunity to see some incredible demos. One of the demos was a visualization and control system that aggregates information from connected devices across a city. The scenario I described above took place in Dallas using this system.

Smart Cities are Safe Cities

The Internet of Things will completely transform our cities. By making cities “smart”, we can reduce waste and energy usage, improve transportation, and increase safety for citizens.

Trash bins outfitted with sensors allow cities to optimize trash pickup, meaning cleaner streets and lower costs. Street lamps outfitted with motion sensors mean they only turn on when someone is nearby, keeping people safe at night while saving energy and money. Strategically placed noise sensors mean a clear picture of high traffic and concentrations of people, allowing better traffic and noise pollution control.

As we saw from the scenario in Dallas, these sensors can also be used to increase the effectiveness of law enforcement. Trash bins can indicate irregular activity, motion-sensing street lamps can help track down a fleeing suspect, and noise sensors can immediately alert authorities to gunshots.

Smart cities will give law enforcement powerful tools. In addition to the ability to quickly respond to crimes and disasters as they happen, law enforcement will also be equipped to address crimes and disasters before they happen. By aggregating huge amounts of data about the city and its citizens, predictive analytics can be applied to forecast likely places for crime or disaster.

This may sound like science fiction, but this future is rapidly approaching. The incentives are high for both local governments and citizens to make the their cities smarter, and the technology is already here and getting better by the day.

Given the inevitability of these changes, it’s critical that we consider the broader implications and potential risks.

Smart City Privacy

The United States Constitution has no explicit mention of privacy, let alone smart city privacy. However, The fourth, fifth, ninth, and fourteenth amendments combine to limit the the government’s intrusion into an individual’s right to privacy, even when exercising police powers.

Furthermore, the Privacy Act of 1974 guarantees “the right of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasion of their privacy resulting from the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information.”

But what constitutes “unwarranted invasion”?

It’s clear that breaking and entering someone’s private residence is an unwarranted invasion, hence the need for a police warrant. But other cases become tricky.

Smart cities will enable authorities to track a person’s location at all times by using video feeds across the city (in busses, outside stores, etc), facial recognition, and other sensors/technologies. Although a person’s activity may take place in public, this information can nonetheless be extremely private. For instance, people may need to travel to an HIV clinic, to a psychiatrist, to an abortion clinic, etc.

So what does smart city privacy look like? Should it be illegal to collect and store a person’s location information? What about when this tracking isn’t explicitly enabled but can still be pieced together from a variety of other data sources? Should those other sources of data collection be made illegal too?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but they are extremely important for us to ask.

Sensors are becoming cheaper, wireless connectivity is becoming ubiquitous, and computing power continues to increase. An incredibly connected world and smart cities are going to be a reality. It’s a question of when, not if.

While there are amazing benefits that we’ll gain, there are also new issues we’ll have to address. We need to begin conversation and debate about these topics before they’re issues, so that we can build a better future.

To that end, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these matters. If you have expertise on the legal side, on the IoT side, or simply a strong opinion about smart city privacy, please share below!

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