Concerned About Privacy in Your Smart City? The Time to Think Critically is Now

When it comes to smart cities, is there ever such a thing as too much information?

It’s a Catch-22. To truly innovate smart cities and create a data-driven, connected environment, you need information. Lots of it. Who are your citizens? What are their needs? How do they currently use municipal infrastructure and services? How would they ideally like to use said infrastructure and services? The list could go on forever. That being said, the more connected cities are to technology and data on those it serves, the more citizens and city-goers’ personal privacy is compromised. 

How much personal information should be culled, stored, and analyzed in the name of researching, designing, and creating smarter, safer, and more efficient cities for the masses? And how much information use is too much, and in essence violates the individual’s right to privacy in their hometown?

Here are three critical concerns every smart city, citizen, and startup should be considering, right now:

#1 – Smart city or data city?

Smart cities are built on more than just solid ground. They’re also built on data. Every action and interaction within a smart city is a potential source of data, informing municipalities and service providers about anything and everything, from local weather and traffic conditions to citizens’ behaviors and needs. Using a combination of cameras, sensors, smartphones, and other hardware and software solutions, smart cities and their innovative partners learn everything they can about the city and its inhabitants, to provide better, smarter, safer, and more efficient solutions for daily living. 

But it doesn’t take much to transform a smart city initiative into rancid misconduct that places undue risk on individuals’ data. By collecting and using more and more personal data, smart cities are, by the wayside, creating more opportunities for said data to be breached, and citizens’ privacy to be compromised. Centralization and integration, as well as vulnerabilities in Wi-Fi networks and IoT devices, open the doors to new and broader cyber-kinetic attacks, which extend beyond the scope of “mere” identity thefts to potentially destroy property and human lives. 

There is a fine line between collecting data for good, and letting data sour and go bad. How do we ensure that citizens’ privacy is protected and that line is never crossed?

#2 – No risk, no reward?

Like with anything worthwhile in life, from crossing the street to buy a loaf of bread, to asking your high-school sweetheart for their hand in marriage, there’s always an element of risk involved. In fact, the more you step outside of your comfort zone, the more you “risk” reaping even greater rewards, should the odds of your gamble be in your favor. 

The wise use of data is an excellent example of this careful balance. When used correctly, data can enable municipalities to innovate revolutionary solutions to cities’ greatest challenges, from traffic congestion and road safety, to air quality control, waste management, and even job creation! 

To truly make the best use of the data available to them while mitigating as much risk as possible, smart cities must also balance their leveraging of aggregated data versus real-time data. While the latter is generally made available via the internet and is, therefore, more accessible (and sellable) to bodies and organizations outside of municipal jurisdictions, the former cannot be directly linked to specific individuals and is considered to be a safer, less risky bet. 

That being said, as much as de-identifying all data at the source is an attractive and lofty goal, the inherent value of personalized data must not be discounted. Are privacy risks potentially worth the value that is smart city infrastructure enabling you to seamlessly drive through a series of green lights on your daily drive to work, shaving time off your commute and reducing road rage at its source? What about if IoT technologies could alert the correct city departments when your garbage can needs emptying, or your gas line is starting to leak? Consider the benefits a maximally connected data city could afford, and you’ll find yourself second-guessing the weight of those privacy concerns on your shoulders, guaranteed.

#3 – Could proper controls eliminate the need for citizen involvement?

Two other ways to help reduce privacy concerns in smart cities are the establishment of proper controls and the integration of citizen involvement in data-related decisions. But unless these methods are implemented from the get-go and in tandem, it’s highly unlikely that smart city privacy concerns can be done away with, despite municipalities’ greatest efforts. It is up to those running smart cities, as well as those partnering with them to provide innovative urban solutions, to ensure that citizens are being heard, and cites are being held accountable, at every possible juncture.

The future of smart cities is data-driven, but it is also people-patrolled. It is up to the real people behind the technological advancements to ensure that smart cities continue to meet their citizens’ privacy needs and that predetermined red lines are never, ever crossed.

Bottom line

Smart cities need data to survive and thrive, but there must be a set of checks and balances that ensure any information gathered is being used for noble purposes only. Before anyone badmouths smart cities for their lack of sensitivity towards sensitive personal data, it is critical that tough questions be asked, and the risk of giving over private information be weighed against the rewards it can provide you and your fellow citizens, on a daily basis. 

Does your startup protect smart city-goers’ privacy? Inquire about joining Highroad’s upcoming Launchpad cohort today!