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Privacy and snooping in Smart cities: utopia or reality?

Our cities are getting smarter, but what does it mean for our privacy? 

They are watching you. The world around us is getting smarter and smarter, with sensors embedded into buildings, cars, street lamps, roads and traffic lights. We may, of course, delight in the prospect of living in such cities of the future, which just a decade ago would have been mere science fiction. However, living in a smart world also means that myriads of sensors constantly register and process our private data - whether it’s our daily commute or our shopping habits. So are we entering Utopia, or an Orwellian dystopia?

Never mind whether government spy agencies are listening to our mobile phones. Smart cities will have a much bigger impact on our privacy than that.

Sure, ‘smart cities’ have the potential to bring together technology, society and government to pave the way for a smarter economy, smarter living, and smarter governance. Take the South Korean city of Songdo, currently being built and hailed as one of the smartest cities on the planet; Frederic Ojardias, a researcher at Seoul National University, describes it as “filled with sensors and cameras at every corner (monitoring temperature, traffic, electricity) that are all interconnected and linked to a central ‘brain’ that computes all this information in real-time in order to optimise the management of the city, minute by minute”.

In a piece he wrote last year about the progress of building the South Korean smart city, he says: “In Songdo, I had the chance to visit the technical centre of U-life Solutions, a company that, in cooperation with Cisco, offers connected services to its 70,000 residents, directly into their living room: services such as one-on-one distance English classes (the teacher is in the United States while the grade-schooler sits on his sofa, in front of his TV and webcam), psychotherapy sessions through webcam, and distance fitness coaching. Telemedicine is in the pipeline.

“For safety reasons, all these interactions are monitored in real-time by supervisors in the technical centre, an office whose walls are covered with numerous screens. It was a very impressive experience. I could watch live all these kids in their homes, chatting with their professors. And I realised that these IT companies made reality the infamous ‘telescreen’ imagined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984.

“The telescreen is an instrument of political control. It monitors citizens in their private lives to ensure that they will never diverge from the ideological lines drawn by ‘Big Brother’. If they do, they are submitted to horrendous ‘reeducation’. The telescreen can never be shut off.

“Of course, the users of Songdo’s telescreens gave their authorisation to be monitored. When I raised the question of privacy to one of them (a 43-year-old mother of three), she answered me: ‘I am not worried at all. I can turn off my TV and webcam anytime.’ But what if South Korea was not a democracy? What if the webcam could continue to film even when the user thinks it is not?”

Songdo is not unique. More and more cities are packed with sensors, from Rio de Janeiro to London to Moscow, and many, many more. In the UK, Bristol and Edinburgh have recently claimed to be among the smartest in the world. Several other cities around the world make similar claims. They have lighting that turns itself on as soon as you get close, to save energy; parking spaces sensing your car and telling you where a free space is available nearby; air-conditioning systems that micromanage temperature and humidity, dramatically improving the office environment; roads that sense traffic load and feed the information to systems that optimise vehicle flows.

Of course, there are also many abandoned initiatives that simply failed to materialise, like smart lamps installed on a street in Barcelona that worked for a short period and then stopped because the funds to keep them working longer simply ran out. Now they are still there, ghosts of a smart-city dream.

But the problem is not just the money. Other initiatives failed because citizens worried about the impact on their privacy, says Gemma Galdon Clavell, director of Eticas, a Spanish research and consulting firm. During her presentation at the recent Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, she told the story of smart meters that were to be installed in the Netherlands in 2005, but people protested. Why? “One of the arguments was that if smart meters had existed in the Second World War, Anne Frank would not have lasted one day. With smart meters, you can’t hide - and there are times when hiding can be legitimate,” said Galdon Clavell.

As a result, the Netherlands had to change its entire smart meter strategy, with readings taken with much more time in between.

In London, a local council recently wanted to install smart bins, with sensors recording not only what kind of rubbish was being put in, but also recording how people use public space, and showing them personalised advertising as they went past. “The project caused a massive uproar, people started asking questions, so the initiative had to be dismantled - at a huge cost, and also a cost to reputation,” said Galdon Clavell.

At a similar venture in New York, with smart phone booths tracking you (provided you opted in), they saw exactly the same reaction and “the systems had to be removed,” said Galdon Clavell. “Citizens are getting more angry at how their data is being used. If people feel the technology is too invasive, they’ll say they don’t want it.”

But by saying ‘no’, citizens don’t just reject more surveillance, they also slow down the development of smart cities, and the convenience, efficiencies and energy savings they bring. “Maybe we haven’t been too smart at identifying what are the things stopping smart cities from becoming the new paradigm,” said Galdon Clavell. “Because smart cities can and do spy on you,” she added, and to make the city really smart, it’s also important to make sure that people understand how this smartness translates and what it means for them in terms of privacy.

So what’s the solution?

“Personal data is everywhere - and if we have a ‘free’ service, we pay for it with our privacy,” says Jarmo Eskelinen, a Finnish data privacy expert and the head of Forum Virium Helsinki innovation lab. He means, for instance, using free Wi-Fi in a coffee shop. There are lots of terms and conditions to read - but do we really read them, or just skip to the end and click ‘I agree’ to start surfing? “There’s a murky region of who gets the data and what happens to me as a person. Is it a conscious decision when I sell my privacy? It is not. We don’t really understand the agreement, and it’s the biggest lie ever: I have read the terms and conditions and I agree,” says Eskelinen.

People should be able to be the boss of their data, and the government should ask permission whether they can use their data or not, he argues. And not only that - citizens should also be able to change their mind and take their data back. But in reality, that’s not what’s happening; rather, people are trading in more and more of their privacy, giving it away in return for services.

That’s why Eskelinen has developed the concept of MyData as an open approach to managing data. “It brings the person to the centre - it’s a new way to integrate and manage data. MyData is an operator model, and we can transfer the account from one operator to another.”

At the end of the day, it might be impossible to escape the constant, pervading surveillance of smart cities. For example, even ventures such as installing pollution sensors in cities will and do gather data on people. “Big data is everywhere - be it about our whereabouts, relationships, shopping habits, religion, favourite restaurants, country of origin, working hours, friends, you name it,” says Carmela Troncoso, a researcher at The IMDEA Software Institute in Madrid. “For instance, take smart energy meters - well, they can reveal your habits at home.”

All of this brings up a lot of ethical issues, she adds. As a result, there are now efforts under way to establish a legal framework in Europe on gathering data with consent, to reconcile the value of services with privacy, and develop ways to use the data while anonymising them, and finally protecting them better through encryption.

But it’s not that easy. “Only if you’re in the countryside will you have some kind of privacy,” says Troncoso. “Our ways of how we move around the city are different. To anonymise this data, you’d have to remove this information. It’s the same for your web browser, when we take it altogether it doesn’t matter if you’re using anonymous browsing or not, because all you need is less than four purchases to identify a person. Full anonymisation is impossible. We have to put lots of noise in it to make it useless for further analysis.”

One way forward could be advanced cryptography, processing in encrypted domains, and researchers are working on perfecting the techniques. Hopefully they’ll get there in time when smart cities become truly smart. “We have to build responsible smart cities,” says Troncoso. “The path is there, and we have the tools - we just need to work together to get there.”

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