More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and cities are projected to add another 2.5 billion people over the next three decades. Migration of such epic proportions is severely straining public services, and as a result, cities across the world are implementing solutions driven by technology and data to deal with it. Smart cities are those that collect and analyse massive amounts of data by utilising a combination of information and communications technology (ICT), internet of things (IoT) and geographical information systems (GIS) to safeguard their residents, boost mobility and connectivity, increase energy efficiency, and generally raise the level of their residents’ welfare. From Singapore to Zurich to Barcelona, smart cities are cropping up across the globe. Over a thousand smart city projects are underway and it is estimated that a staggering $189 billion (USD) will be spent worldwide on smart cities initiatives by 2023.
But behind the facade of safety and energy efficiency lies the dark side of smart cities where ‘smart’ is often a euphemism for surveillance. With major cities embracing surveillance technologies and nearly one billion CCTV cameras deployed worldwide, there are increasing concerns of smart cities turning into dystopian surveillance states.
All Eyes on You
The term ‘smart’ has received a lot of flak in recent times, and it’s not difficult to understand why- smart speakers leak your conversations to third parties, smart TVs sell your viewing habits to data brokers, and smartwatches track your movements for ad-targeting.
Some countries are adopting surveillance technologies faster than others; case in point- China, which is home to 18 of the top 20 most surveilled cities in the world. Alibaba’s City Brain public surveillance system, which was recently installed in Shanghai, is a massive network of satellites, drones and fixed cameras that capture over 20 million images a day. Chinese companies such as Hikvision, Huawei, and ZTE lead the charge in the $45.5 billion (USD) global video surveillance market. Surveillance actively encourages “solutions” (read as punishments) that are far too severe for the level of the infraction. China’s Social Credit System, which partly derives its data from the country’s extensive network of 300 million+ CCTVs, punishes its citizens for minor transgressions such as jaywalking and excessive video gaming.
Surveillance technologies are also prevalent in the US, with the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent US Patriot Act accelerating their spread. Concerns over smart cities initiatives across North America and Western Europe roughly boil down to how surveillance technology enables pervasive collection, retention, and misuse of personal data by institutions ranging from law enforcement to private companies. In general, surveillance is perceived to be undermining transparency, accountability, and trust while encroaching on free speech, privacy, and data protection.
There are further concerns about how facial recognition technologies are racially biased and prone to errors when it comes to people of colour. But facial recognition and related technologies are just the tip of the iceberg; there are more pressing concerns when it comes to smart cities.
The billions of interconnected devices ranging from CCTVs and drones to energy-saving automatic lighting and internet-connected refrigerators that form the bedrock of the smart city ecosystem are all vulnerable to cyberattacks. The smarter a city gets, the wider the array of digital threats it faces. Cities worldwide have been targets of data theft, system breaches, and cyberattacks which have ultimately undermined the faith of their residents in digitally connected services and systems.
Smart cities centralize power and control. In their current state, smart cities are largely privatised affairs that are designed as a public-private partnership to extract as much value as possible from its residents while providing the tools to control any civil unrest that such an arrangement might provoke. Instead of being treated as first-class citizens, residents are treated as things that need to be monitored and controlled.
Digital Security: Digital security needs to be baked into devices, infrastructure, governance and society as a whole. Security that is ‘bolted on’ after systems are in place is deemed useless as they usually don’t work, and the consequences of a breach can be catastrophic. Governments at all levels should enforce standards that require all internet-enabled devices to have minimum password protection, authentication, and encryption built-in.
Digital Literacy: Implementing a robust digital literacy programme for residents can thwart many potential digital harms. Everyone should practise good cybersecurity hygiene, which involves regular changing of passwords, multi-factor authentication and increased adoption of biometrics.
Cybersecurity Leaders: Cities need leaders with cybersecurity experience to guide the smart city programme and suggest industry best practices.
Anonymity: Smart cities should preserve the anonymity of their residents and should avoid reinforcing disproportionate surveillance that undermines basic freedoms. Residents should be allowed to move in relative anonymity, identified only when needed and under conditions that allow for significant controls over their data.
The current trend of deploying smart technology systems throughout cities around the world is here to stay. Smart cities can longer be privatised affairs, and the governments cannot subsidise private companies’ experiments with little to no oversight. Enhanced cybersecurity readiness, resilience and responsiveness are crucial to combat future threats. Above all, smart cities should prioritise the needs of their residents, and the pursuit of smarter cities should not come at the expense of safety, privacy, and liberty.
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