Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

March 6, 2018

All over the world, smart cities are popping up that make use of cutting-edge technology. In India, the Aadhaar system and smart technology are being integrated in a way that is being heralded as the future by some – and as a privacy-invading nightmare by others. In the Netherlands, a place known to be supportive of citizens’ right to privacy, smart city technology is eroding the boundaries between private and public – causing many people to ring alarm bells.

At the moment, Bill Gates has intentions to build a smart city in Arizona. Google wants to build an entire smart neighborhood in Toronto. And in the Middle East, the Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced a project to build a 500 billion dollar smart city called Neom. 

With plans like these popping up all over the world, it seems important to consider how smart city technology is affecting people’s privacy in places where it is already being integrated. Places like Barcelona, Singapore, Boston, London, Dubai, and Hamburg, are all using data to manage city systems. What can we learn from those ongoing projects? And what warnings do they create for the future?

Dutch Experiments

In the Netherlands, privacy experts are concerned about the growing use of smart city technologies for tracking citizens. In the city of Enschede, complaints have already been made about traffic sensors that scan passing cars for a MAC address: the unique network card number in a smartphone. The council uses that data to keep tabs on how many people visit Enschede, and where they prefer to go.

For local residents in the area, like Dave Borghuis, the scanning feels creepy. He has made an official complaint, telling the press that:

“I don’t think it’s okay for the municipality to track its citizens in this way. If you walk around the city, you have to be able to imagine yourself unwatched.”

Sadly, this isn’t a one-of-a-kind problem. Invasive practices are occurring all over the Netherlands. In Eindhoven, a famous party street has been turned into the city’s “smartest street” in order to help the authorities deal with drunken aggression. On Stratumseind street, lamp-posts have had wifi-trackers installed in them alongside cameras and 64 microphones. Those technologies are being used to warn police about possible brawls.

The Helpful Hidden Hand

Peter van de Crommert, project manager for Stratumseind at the Dutch Institute for Technology, Safety, and Security, claims that the technology is only there to help people. He bounces off criticisms about a Dutch nanny state commenting that:

“Big brother is helping you. We want safe nightlife, but not a soldier on every street corner.”

Unfortunately, privacy experts disagree. Maša Galic, a privacy researcher at the Tilburg Institute of Law, Technology, and Society, says that the data collection goes against the Dutch Personal Data Protection Act.

That legislation states that individuals must give permission before data can be collected from their devices. It also states that a specific purpose must be explained in advance of any data collection.  On Stratumseind street (and in Enschede) that is not occurring, and according to Galic a visit to Stratumseind is the equivalent of “entering a living laboratory.”

Permissionless Innovations

In the book Permissionless Innovations, by Adam Thierer, a case is made in favor of allowing private companies to test innovations and implement new technologies without government regulation. However, in the Netherlands, that notion appears to already be causing friction.

In Utrecht, private companies have been contracted to install smart bins, smart street lights, a “burglary predictor,” social media monitoring systems – and countless others – as part of an $80 million investment drive that started back in 2014. In Utrecht, scanner cars roam the city dispensing parking tickets while also seeking out citizens with a municipal tax deb.

The privately run systems have been allowed to flourish so rapidly, that the government doesn’t actually know where each sensor is, or exactly what they are doing and when. A Dutch technology writer called Evgeny Morozov, has previously commented that “the culmination of the smart city is a privatised city.” The evidence certainly seems to prove Morozov right.

Out of Government Control

Arjen Hof, the director of a firm called Civity, says that there is clear evidence of unsettling privatization happening all over Holland. He cites the example of a firm called CityTec – which manages 30,000 traffic lights, 500,000 lamp-posts, and  2,000 car parks around the country. Since taking on the contract, CityTec has refused to share smart-data with local governments, despite admitting that those local municipalities do legally own the lamp posts.

The firm claims that they own the economic rights to the data that is being accumulated about Dutch citizens. According to Hof,  companies are being allowed to dictate terms that stop city councils from disclosing what agreements have been made within contracts.

In the city of Assen, in the north of the country, there is proof of government services suffering at the hands of privatized smart city technologies. In 2011, the city invested in a system that connected traffic lights, car parks, and parking signs, to a high-speed internet grid.

The system was supposed to help citizens by guiding them around traffic jams. However, since then the “Sensor City” has gone bankrupt and the publicly funded project is being sold off to another private firm. The council will now need to strike a deal with that firm in order to continue using city traffic lights and signs.

Cause for Concern

These Dutch cases are a clear indication of what is happening elsewhere around the world. They are especially concerning because the Netherlands is generally considered a place that is good for privacy.

Now consider that in the US, ISPs have already been given permission to retain and sell consumer web browsing habits. What’s more, firms can be served warrants and gag orders by the government: which force them to hand over all data about their customers and keep it a secret.

In such a climate – and with silicon valley generally in favor of “permissionless innovation” – concerns that firms could create a privacy-invading runaway train are very real. Only with transparent oversight can we be sure that both firms and government agencies are not overstepping the boundaries of people’s fundamental rights.

Sadly, in places like Saudi Arabia – where the government is already heavily authoritarian – smart cities like Neom are unlikely to stop to think about human rights. This, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has become the first place to give the artificially intelligent robot Sophia citizenship. A concerning omen in of itself, considering that “those same rights aren’t afforded to many humans in the country.”

Opinions are the writer’s own.

Title image credit: jamesteohart/Shutterstock.com

Image credits: THINK A/Shutterstock.com, Creativa Images/Shutterstock.com, Ashley van Dyck/Shutterstock.com