Could the smart city mean the death of privacy?

Privacy advocates should gird themselves; a bold future is rapidly approaching, and it’s certain to put them to the ultimate test when it comes to securing citizen’s privacy and data.

smart city abstract
Thinkstock

As the Internet of Things grows and society becomes more interconnected, millions of citizens are beginning to experience a new kind of lifestyle in smart cities. These futuristic, digitally-dependent cities aren’t entirely without their downsides, however; human rights activist, futurist, and private citizens are increasingly concerned that the advent of smart cities could mean the death of privacy itself.

So, what’s the truth behind smart cities and privacy, and is all the craze generated over tomorrow’s urban centers anything more than wild speculation? A quick review of smart cities as they’re developing now shows that, managed properly, they can be a huge boon to the populace – but privacy advocates will have to stay on their toes.

More connections mean less privacy

If there’s one defining trait of smart cities, it’s their interconnectedness. These 21st century urban hubs revolve around the internet, relying on millions of sensors embedded in digital gadgets and infrastructure alike to record and utilize data to make better and safer decisions. An unfortunate downside of this is a necessary invasion of privacy; with cameras and sensors on every street corner, citizens will find certain forms of surveillance all but unavoidable.

Plenty of work has already highlighted just how severely smart cities potentially threaten our day-to-day privacy; tools like the future of privacy forum’s visual guide to smart city privacy show just how ubiquitous sensors and surveillance already are. Furthermore, todays’ high level of gadgets, cameras, and sensors are only likely to explode further in the immediate future; spending on the internet of things is expected to soar to a dizzying $267 billion by 2020 alone.

Smart cities have been highly lauded as being safe cities, precisely because their higher levels of surveillance allow the authorities to identify and capture criminals easier than ever before, not to mention deter crimes before they’re even committed. Thus, while privacy advocates may be unhappy, smart city advocates can push back with legitimate arguments that the increased level of sensors produce a safer, happier society.

Similarly, public utilities like trash collecting services or water and power systems will also benefit from the tech smart cities are founded on, often, again, at the expense of privacy. Much in the way that social media companies and advertising firms know much more about your shopping and browsing habits than you do, smart cities and their utility providers will soon be able to paint eerily accurate portraits of your utility consumption rates, and adjust their services accordingly.

The price to pay for luxury?

So, what are privacy advocates to do? In truth, the answer is complicated, and at times wholly unsavory. If citizens want to enjoy the luxurious and booming lifestyles of smart city residents, they’ll need to be prepared to make some sacrifices. It won’t be uncommon to have your picture taken, or to be captured in video footage, nor will it be possible to avoid sensors collecting data on you when you utilize public goods like transit services or parks. These are all the prices that must be paid to enjoy the unique goods and services smart cities offer by exploiting their sensors and huge swaths of data.

That doesn’t mean privacy advocates can’t put up a fight, however, nor does it mean citizens should blindly accept surveillance into their everyday lives. Citizens can increasingly turn to coupons for encrypted communications channels, for instance, if they’d like to avoid the prying eyes of governments and businesses alike. Court cases arguing for a “right to be forgotten” will doubtless be waged, and consumers can make their voices heard by responding with their wallets when companies cross ethical boundaries and breach intimate privacy.

The unpleasant reality will remain, however, and that is that smart cities are often too smart to evade entirely. The countless data-generating sensors and streams of information which we desperately rely are so convenient and accurate precisely because there are so many of them, and they’re capable of tracking nearly everyone. If citizens intend to enjoy the widespread use of these devices, they must be prepared to pay the privacy price that comes with them, without allowing themselves to be unduly spied upon at the same time.

Few people can tell what the future of smart cities hold in their entirely; for all we know, new technological breakthroughs tomorrow will fundamentally reshape how we live, operate our businesses, and govern ourselves, just as countless new gadgets and services have done so in this past decade alone. Precautions should nonetheless be taken, however, and citizens should know that participation in modern society doesn’t necessitate sacrificing their rights en masse for the convenience of smart cities.

Privacy advocates should gird themselves; a bold future is rapidly approaching, and it’s certain to put them to the ultimate test when it comes to securing citizen’s privacy and data.

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