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Smart City Technologies and their Privacy Concerns

Around the world from Tokyo to Toronto, municipalities are making significant investments in smart city technologies. We take a look at some.

Smart City Technologies city at night

Around the world from Tokyo to Toronto, municipalities are making significant investments in smart city technologies.

Designed to make our urban spaces cleaner, greener, more connected, safer and eminently more liveable, smart city infrastructures utilise the latest technologies and data science practices and tools to streamline how we live, making life that little bit sweeter.

But the added convenience may come at a hefty cost: our privacy and rights.

Here we take a look at some major smart city advances and set out ways to protect your privacy if you’re living in an interconnected urban area.

Smart City Technologies – Movers and Shakers

City Brain — Shanghai, China

Named smart city of the year, Shanghai is rapidly becoming a shining light for urban development. Recently, the mega city has deployed City Brain, a concept created by retail giant Alibaba.

City Brain uses machine intelligence to streamline elements of city life, including transportation and security. Facial recognition cameras, satellite pictures and drones produce millions of images of the city while AI systems can help discover problems such as illegal parking or garbage dumping. The system is also capable of adjusting the timing on traffic lights and alerting emergency services of any major events.

Smart Nation — Singapore

Singapore’s successful Smart Nation initiative has been in place since 2014. The city is continually merging the private and state sectors through innovative solutions to the problems of city life. For example, the popular ride-sharing platform Grab collates millions of rows of GPS data every in mere seconds from other Grabs including GrabHitch, GrabShare and GrabTaxi.

Grab also works in tandem with Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority to analyse commuter travel patterns in the city, the ultimate aim is to make public transport even better and easier for citizens.

Smart Nation initiatives also include free wifi around the city, parking systems, integrated government services, and lots more.

Protecting Our Privacy

As you can imagine, smart cities need a lot of information to function as planned. Whether it’s biometric cameras watching citizens in a park or sensors that track how fast people walk, smart hubs gather and collect intel on our movements.

For some people, this level of surveillance is both unprecedented and unwanted. And in some places, we are already seeing what many critics call “Big Brother” behaviour from the state. Chongqing in China, for example, has 2.6 million biometric cameras watching its citizens.

If smart cities go too far, there is a very real chance we will end up being constantly surveilled. And with no privacy option to opt-out, there’s little we can do.

Nevertheless, the following tips will help if you live in a nation or city where smart developments are infringing on your basic rights to privacy:

  • Use a VPN whenever you’re online for data security and encryption. Your VPN also allows you to change your digital location by switching servers.
  • Lobby your local government now and put pressure on the state to ensure any smart developments comply with privacy laws. It worked in San Francisco and it will work elsewhere if there are many people pushing the same agenda.
  • Whenever possible, don’t link all of your online services into a single portal. Of course, this is harder in some places than others.

Whether tomorrow’s smart cities will be idyllic or hellish is heavily reliant on privacy. It’s in our best interest now to push for the former.

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