In 2017, a Toronto district was placed in the hands of a company intent on turning the area into an example of technological prowess. The idea was to showcase the potential of new, data-and technology-driven smart cities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed the process, announcing that the partnership with Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs, a part of Alphabet Inc., meant the neighbourhood was set to become a “thriving hub for innovation.”

However, just one year into the ambitious project, a team privacy expert, tasked with making sure the development would protect citizens’ data privacy, resigned. In her resignation letter, Ann Cavoukian said: “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.” Cavoukian also cited concerns that guidelines in her ‘Privacy by Design’ plan, intended to protect personal data, would be largely ignored. 

Hers is not the only voice of dissent. Other prominent critics include the former CEO of BlackBerry, Jim Balsillie, who called the development “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.”

See related article: Covid-19 intensifies AI rivalry between China and US—at what cost to civil liberties?

The incident serves as a sobering reminder of the tension between mass data collection, upon which smart city design relies for optimal functionality, and citizens’ rights to data privacy. 

There is no easy answer to the quandary and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify levels of importance when we have smarter, safer, more environmentally friendly cities on one hand and matters of personal data and the right to privacy on the other.

Smart cities cannot exist without mass data. In one commonly cited definition, IBM refers to smart cities as focused on “the smart usage of technology in order to collect, examine, process, and implement large amounts of useful data directly from the already functioning cities.”

At their core, smart cities have lofty goals. Solving global issues such as climate change, urbanization, high population growth, and dwindling resources are a few laudable examples. 

As we stand on the precipice of an era when technology has the potential to solve many of the issues it arguably created in the first place, the benefits of smart cities are certainly attractive.

Connected, responsive, intelligent and sustainable

Smart cities are premised on four key elements: connectivity, responsiveness, intelligence, and sustainability. When these factors work in conjunction, the benefits are potentially endless. 

Imagine trying to find a car park in the city center on a Saturday morning. As most of us know, it’s often an exercise in futility. Now imagine that all car parks are equipped with sensors that know when a park is occupied and when it is empty. This information can be fed to a user-level app to helps drivers find and navigate to the closest available parking spot.

Would we even take the car if the city’s public transport network was seamless? Cameras at bus stops can monitor how many people are at a given stop and communicate that information to transportation service providers who then adjust schedules accordingly. 

These examples show how mass data collection means services are better suited to the city’s actual needs as opposed to what policymakers think the city needs based on rather more abstract information. 

When equipped with all the data one could possibly ask for, the result is two-fold: dynamic solutions that match actual need, and the swifter implementation of changes. Bureaucracy has traditionally meant that change was slow to implement as analysis and data collection were painstaking processes. With sensor data and artificial intelligence combined, both are completed quickly meaning faster implementation.

File:Miami traffic jam, I-95 North rush hour.jpg
Smart cities could help improve transportation and environmental issues. Photo: B137, CCASA 4.0

From an environmental perspective, smart cities are an absolute boon. Reducing consumption automatically reduces power plant emissions, and accordingly, environmental impact. Integrated, smart power grids can deliver the optimal amount of energy to areas of low demand while increasing the flow to areas of higher demand. They can also be set up to prioritize clean sources such as solar and hydro before switching to carbon-based power solutions. 

It’s not all sunshine and optimized power solutions though, there are plenty of smart city concerns.

Vulnerable, intrusive, and under-regulated

Because smart cities are so reliant on data collection, there are multiple privacy concerns. There is no option to opt-in, rather, the choice is made for citizens. How does one feel walking down the pavement when one is fully aware that each step is monitored by embedded sensors that monitor foot traffic while smart cameras track and record faces to feed the information back to a facial recognition database?

Research shows that most of us are quite willing to part with our data if it grants us special benefits, such as exclusive deals. But how willing are we to have every movement and resource use tracked and collated, often without depersonalization? Do we want the minutiae of our daily lives tracked? 

In addition to the inherent privacy concerns, the IoT (internet of things) infrastructure smart cities rely on is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Citizens can encrypt their own devices and data, such as by using a VPN, but should the onus really be on citizens as opposed to governments?

Already smart solutions controlling critical services such as power grids have been attacked, and the threat actors are diverse. Criminal cyber groups work for financial gain while state-sponsored actors, such as those recently targeting Australia, work towards rather more shadowy goals.

Further complicating matters is the lack of universal or even national security standards, the technology is moving faster than regulators can match or even adequately understand in order to prescribe proper rules and regulations.

As discussions around securing smart cities advance, blockchain technology is increasingly cited as a potential solution. Interconnected urban IoT objects and devices can be linked by a cryptographic chain of trust, and the result should be the secure, accurate, and immutable exchange of data information. Blockchain can also be used to increase data transparency, which should increase citizens’ confidence in smart city technologies.

The full scope of blockchain’s application to smart cities is yet to be discovered, but it could be an elegant solution to some of the most glaring concerns. Watch this space.