Soon Your City Will Know Everything About You

Currently, the biggest users of these sensor arrays are in cities, where city governments use them to collect large amounts of policy-relevant data. In Los Angeles, the crowdsourced traffic and navigation app Waze collects data that helps residents navigate the city’s choked highway networks. In Chicago, an ambitious program makes public data available to startups eager to build apps for residents. The city’s 49th ward has been experimenting with participatory budgeting and online votingto take the pulse of the community on policy issues. Chicago has also been developing the “Array of Things,” a network of sensors that track, among other things, the urban conditions that affect bronchitis.

Edmonton uses the cloud to track the condition of playground equipment. And a growing number of countries have purpose-built smart cities, like South Korea’s high tech utopia city of Songdo, where pervasive sensor networks and ubiquitous computing generate immense amounts of civic data for public services.

The drive for smart cities isn’t restricted to the developed world. Rio de Janeiro coordinates the information flows of 30 different city agencies. In Beijing and Da Nang (Vietnam), mobile phone data is actively tracked in the name of real-time traffic management. Urban sensor networks, in other words, are also developing in countries with few legal protections governing the usage of data.

These services are promising and useful. But you don’t have to look far to see why the Internet of Things has serious privacy implications. Public data is used for “predictive policing” in at least 75 cities across the U.S., including New York City, where critics maintain that using social media or traffic data to help officers evaluate probable cause is a form of digital stop-and-frisk. In Los Angeles, the security firm Palantir scoops up publicly generated data on car movements, merges it with license plate information collected by the city’s traffic cameras, and sells analytics back to the city so that police officers can decide whether or not to search a car. In Chicago, concern is growing about discriminatory profiling because so much information is collected and managed by the police department — an agency with a poor reputation for handling data in consistent and sensitive ways. In 2015, video surveillance of the police shooting Laquan McDonald outside a Burger King was erased by a police employee who ironically did not know his activities were being digitally recorded by cameras inside the restaurant.

Since most national governments have bungled privacy policy, cities — which have a reputation for being better with administrative innovations — will need to fill this gap. A few countries, such as Canada and the U.K., have independent “privacy commissioners” who are responsible for advocating for the public when bureaucracies must decide how to use or give out data. It is pretty clear that cities need such advocates too.

What would Urban Privacy Commissioners do? They would teach the public — and other government staff — about how policy algorithms work. They would evaluate the political context in which city agencies make big data investments. They would help a city negotiate contracts that protect residents’ privacy while providing effective analysis to policy makers and ensuring that open data is consistently serving the public good….(more)”.