Smart cities in North America: How will Informed Consent work? (part 1)

The emergence of new technologies is promising to help local government better manage urban environments, as well as deliver services in more efficient and effective ways. But about the cost of making these communities more sustainable, comfortable, and fair?

Living in a digitally connected “Smart city” will inevitably involve the collection and processing of large amounts of data – including citizens’ personal information.

So, what exactly is a Smart City? And how could it impact the privacy of its residents?

Do you know what a Smart City is? If you don’t know, or if you have only a rough idea of what a smart city is, you are not alone. Fact is, the typical man-in-the-street has little, of no idea what a smart city is. Most wouldn’t know how to recognize one if the technology was in place and would probably not have sufficient knowledge about how the technology is used to develop an informed opinion of whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

To many urbanites in Canadian cities, like Toronto, Mississauga and Kitchener, the developments their own cities are undergoing to make them “smarter” is perhaps appreciated for its convenience, but it is yet to be fully understood for its effect on privacy rights. Until citizens have a more robust understanding of how these projects work, it will be impossible to produce informed consent.

Smart Cities 101

A Smart City uses technologies that collect data to improve the management and delivery of municipal services, support planning and analysis, and promote innovation within the local community.

By collecting large amounts of data, often in real-time, municipalities can gain a greater understanding of the quality and effectiveness of their services. For example, commuter traffic flow data can identify congestion hotspots and inform planning and urban design.

Insights can also be generated by linking the collected data with other data sources and using analytics technology to uncover patterns and connections in large data sets. This can lead to “smart” actions, such as:

  • sending a signal to garbage collectors when sensors indicate that garbage bins are full

  • turning on park water sprinklers when sensors detect the soil is dry

  • synchronizing street lights with traffic flows

  • directing self-driving vehicles to available parking spots using GPS information collected from the vehicles.

But to the majority of Smart City dwellers in North American cities, like New York, San Francisco, Boulder, Toronto and Kitchener, the developments taking place in their cities are designed to make them “smarter” is possibly more appreciated from a convenience perspective. However, the concept is not yet fully understood where privacy rights are concerned. So, how can residents possibly give their informed consent when they clearly need to acquire a deeper understanding of how Smart City projects work?

The whole notion concept of the Smart City will continue to evolve, as new projects are designed to meet the requirements of disparate urban communities.

What data is collected – and how?

At its core, a smart city is an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information which can be used to manage assets and resources efficiently. This can include data collected from citizens, devices, and assets, which is processed and analyzed in order to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, law enforcement, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.

Some Smart City technologies collect information about individuals from their mobile devices, including information about their movements around the city. Personal information can also be collected from municipally owned and operated sensors, such as audio and video recording devices, or vehicle license plate readers. Municipalities may enter into information-sharing agreements with third parties, such as smartphone app providers, or companies that install and manage sensors and communications infrastructure. These agreements may require or allow third parties to collect and use personal information for their own purposes as well as for the purposes of the municipality.

Is Big Brother watching?

Ask the average teenager what they think about privacy and they are likely to say they don’t understand what the fuss is about. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then there’s nothing to worry about” was the quick-fire response when I asked my step-daughter the question. This is hardly surprising considering how ‘normal’ it has become for today’s youth to share their entire lives on social media.

Well, here’s the thing. Cities are also gathering real-time data focuses on individuals. Six years ago, a company called Renew London piloted a program whereby sensors installed inside recycling bins tracked the wi-fi signals from passing smartphones. These sensors could then use the phone’s unique MAC address to target advertisements on the same bin to the same individual, based on his or her movement within the sensor network. So, if the individual had frequently passed a particular clothing store or restaurant, he or she might see more ads for that establishment. Scary? Or just a new fact of life?

So, who owns the data?

It is important that municipalities take proper steps to ensure that non-personal information collected by their private sector partners is available as a public resource. They can do this by ensuring that their contractual arrangements do not give proprietary rights over the information to private sector partners who could use the data for commercial purposes.

===========End of Part One===========

In part two of this article, we look at how Smart Cities can affect citizens privacy – and how privacy risks can be minimized. In the meantime, we welcome your comments and opinions on this topic.

Sources and credits: IPC Ontario, Forbes,

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