Smart cities are the future, but privacy is an issue

Matthew Stern at TechFools lauds the benefits of smart cities but warns about privacy and how it needs to be protected

From Tokyo to Toronto, the world’s cities are undergoing dramatic changes. Smart initiatives aim to make urban living safer, cleaner and greener, and more convenient. Whether it’s clever solutions to problems with parking or better services for people with disabilities, the cities of the future certainly have a lot to offer.

However, these swift technological enhancements to the way we live are a double-edged sword: on one hand, life could become easier in many ways, but on the other, we may pay for this added convenience with our privacy.

Smart city benefits

To function as intended, smart cities need a lot of data about citizens concerning how they live, what infrastructure they use, how often, and much more besides. Vast webs of sensors track the minutiae of life and feed intel back to centralised data banks where machine learning and AI solutions comb data and analyse it to form conclusions.

For example, in Hangzhou, China, the city deployed Alibaba’s City Brain, an AI-powered data collection solution. City Brain proved remarkably effective at reducing traffic, once the nation’s 5th most congested city, Hangzhou now sits in 57th position.

To achieve this, City Brain relies on real-time videos from intersection cameras and location data from GPS on cars and buses. Not only are commutes drastically reduced, but emergency response teams can now reach the site of an incident in half the time, according to CNN.

It’s not just traffic getting a smart city makeover, either. With Internet of Things (IoT) sensors tracking various aspects, the environment is getting a much-needed boost, too. In Coogee Beach, Australia, even the rubbish bins are monitored. When the bins need to be emptied, sensors alert the council’s waste management services so there’s no chance of excess blowing into the ocean.

According to Foresight, the CMCC climate policy observatory, this is just the tip of the now-threatened iceberg. The group describes how technologies could help us reach “10 to 15 per cent fewer GHG emissions, 30 to 130 fewer kilograms of solid waste per person per year, and 25 to 80 litres in water savings per person per day.”

The environmental benefits are clear; with smart grids in charge of essential utilities and smart systems governing waste management, we can use less, save more, and use what we do have wisely.

Safety is also touted as a key benefit of smart city developments. Newer technologies, such as facial recognition cameras, are being rolled out worldwide. These devices can monitor public spaces, take moving images of passersby, and match their unique facial features up against data banks of biometric data. And all this happens in real-time, in as little time as it takes one to walk past a lamppost, for instance. Law enforcement agencies are then alerted if a match is found to a known or suspected person, and officers are swiftly dispatched to the scene.

Privacy drawbacks

Catching suspects isn’t the only application, though. In 2020, facial recognition technology helped reunite a Chinese man with his birth family, 32 years after being kidnapped as a child. Law enforcement officers created a composite sketch of what the man might look like as an adult based on an image of him as a boy. This sketch was then matched up against a database and a match was found.

It’s a heartwarming story, and a positive application of what many critics call a highly intrusive technology. Cries of Big Brother are being heard all over the world as facial recognition cameras are trialled, sometimes without citizens’ prior knowledge. In New Zealand, for example, RNZ reports that police tested live biometric cameras without clearance from the Privacy Commissioner.

In the UK, trials have been met with strong opposition and several court cases. In 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that the deployment of facial recognition cameras breached both human rights and data protection laws. And San Francisco has become the first city to ban the technology completely.

While not the only cause for concern in smart cities, facial recognition cameras do highlight a pressing concern: there is no option to opt out. Rather, the choice is made for citizens, and the default option is to share data points, be it biometric or otherwise.

“Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, All the time”

Singapore is often called the smartest city in the world and with so much data collected and analysed, it’s little wonder. The city’s goal when it comes to tracking and sensors is “E3A” Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, All the time.

It’s easy to see that if mishandled, there is a very real potential for smart cities to slide into authoritarian police states, something that is already being observed in China, according to the Financial Times.

To prevent this, there is little citizens can do bar petitioning at the local government level and championing their civil rights. Users can also prevent data sharing as much as possible by using a VPN for privacy and choosing digital services that do not store data nor sell it to third parties; Signal over Messenger, or Firefox over Chrome, for example. But ultimately, the onus is on the state to create smart hubs that keep privacy at the fore.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but it’s an ongoing discussion that is rapidly gaining prominence.

Matthew Stern is a content strategist at TechFools. As a tech enthusiast and an advocate for digital freedom, Matthew is dedicated to teaching his readers how to gain control over their digital lives.

Main image courtesy of

© Business Reporter 2021

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