Last week, Cory Doctorow penned an intriguing piece about smart cities that resonated with me. I recommend you read it, but the gist is that in smart cities, people should be sensors too and that sensors should not be used to track personal information of those people.
This particular quote sums it up best:
Why isn’t it creepy for you to know when the next bus is due, but it is creepy for the bus company to know that you’re waiting for a bus?
This question is spot on because you and I are not just another “thing” in the smart city to track at that level; we’re living beings with a multitude of personal preferences and unique aspects. After thinking about this for a while, I realized how the smart home and the smart city are the polar opposites of each other.
What I mean by that is in the home, we have sensors, cameras, and microphones to pick up on our needs, wants and the desired environment. We choose and consent to use these devices, hopefully reading the terms of service and data sharing agreements. That’s not the case at all with smart cities, which is very concerning.
In other words, we don’t know what data is being collected about us, nor who it is shared with when in smart cities. And we have to hope that local, state and federal government doesn’t misuse that data.
I don’t dispute the benefits a smart city can bring. Aggregated data can indicate how many people are currently riding a transit vehicle or how many drivers are moving slowly on a certain stretch of roads, telling other commuters of potential traffic issues. But in neither of these cases does the city need to know exactly who is on the bus or in that traffic jam.
Part of the problem is that our faces, identities, and exact locations at specific times can be determined by a multitude of cameras outside of the home. That very personal information, along with other aspects about us, can potentially be monetized, even though as a smart city resident, you likely didn’t see or sign any terms of service or get a chance to review information sharing and privacy agreements.
Even worse, thinks Doctorow, is that the current smart city vision could lead to heavy-handed government, something we’ve already witnessed in China as it gathers data on its Uighur population:
“There’s nothing objectionable about adding more trains when the system is busy, or recording accurate usage data to inform our urban planning debates. The problem is that the smart city, as presently conceived, is a largely privatised affair designed as a public-private partnership to extract as much value as possible from its residents while providing the instrumentation and infrastructure to control any civil unrest that such an arrangement might provoke.”
Again, this is all backward from the smart home where consumers are routinely pushing back against smart device makers from either capturing or reselling personal information.
There’s a key, obvious difference of course. My home is my private space and in general, what goes on there is my business alone.
Once I walk out the door, however, I’m now in the public domain. As a result, I’m opening myself to be captured on cameras I don’t control, ride toll roads equipped with wireless payment scanners and be out and about around many other data collection points.
This is great for smart cities because, in theory, publicly available infrastructure can be utilized more efficiently. The issue is: are we the sensor or are we just another “thing to be sensed”?
In the former case, smart cities can deliver upon their promises of efficiency without sharing or gathering personal information from its inhabitants. The latter case, which is the more prevalent vision and more worrisome implementation, is like the privacy pushback in the smart home but on a far grander scale.
Perhaps this is why the “physical web” with solutions such as Google Nearby and other wireless beacon technology hasn’t really taken off. These can both ping your phone when you walk past a Bluetooth-enabled location, suggesting a nearby restaurant that offers your favorite meal or some interesting point-of-interest that you’ve previously researched on the web.
This can be helpful for sure. But consumers seemed to have shunned the technology because it starts to rise up the ladder of creepiness like the bus example. On the surface, such unsolicited personalized messages might be beneficial.
Yet the experience could potentially devolve into getting spammed with sales and pitches by every retail location on the street as you walk past. Shops don’t just know that someone is walking past. They know exactly who is walking past. Think of the 2012 remake of “Total Recall”; if you haven’t seen it, you should, because there’s a scene where a character gets bombarded by personalized sales pitches as he walks past stores.
Ultimately, I believe that smart cities are a good thing. That’s provided the inhabitants don’t give up all of their personal information in that city. Doctorow is right: Let smart cities sense the things and not the details of the people. We should just be another type of basic sensor around the town.