Law in the Internet Society

Is the idea of smart cities actually smart?

-- By JayTongkak - 5 Dec 2019

Virtual Doppelgänger

The idea of our data being stored everywhere is rather creepy, but it is happening, and it is difficult to stop. During thanksgiving break, I had an opportunity to watch an episode of Black Mirror. The episode introduces the idea of storing data of oneself in a device so much, to the point that it becomes our virtual doppelgänger. It knows our preferences, lifestyle, routines, and everything else about us. This reflects our current real world to some degree, our phone knows where we are during each time of the day, when we wake up, what we like to order for dinner, where we go during weekends. This happens automatically behind the scenes without us thinking much about it.

In the light of this, this Black Mirror episode also reminds me of a few articles I read about the idea of Smart City, a cooperation between Google's Sidewalk labs and the City of Toronto. A city to be built in Toronto filled with technologies to automatically facilitate human’s life to the max capacity. This may seem like a good idea because humanity loves conveniences. However, as pointed out in an article, this idea could bring about serious privacy concerns. This is because, rather than the ‘traditional’ way of our phone collecting data, with our consent to certain extent, it will be the entire city collecting and monitoring our data. Everything around us will have a power to do so without our consent. I can only imagine what will happen next. Every single device around us will have our data stored or virtual version of us ready to response to our daily needs, which means we will expose ourselves to several more third parties. What if you do not want to participate in this idea? Would I have to relocate myself into a forest if this idea becomes popular and every city decides to implement ‘smart city?’ This also reminds me of the famous novel about a dystopia after the World War II where every civilian is monitored by the State through out the day or better yet, China, the surveillanced state. The chilling effect of being watch would harm our privacy. Eventually, we will not be able to act freely and every information of us will become public and accessible by everyone. Our privacy will become extinct.

History will repeat itself in a bigger scale

Now that it has been established that the idea of smart city could potentially bring many privacy concerns, it is also important to also ask who will be possessing our doppelgänger? As proven in the recent years, both state and private actors have failed in protecting our data. For example, the incident of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, despite Facebook being one of the biggest tech companies, or the NSA’s misconduct in Snowden case.

If similar incident happens to our virtual doppelgänger possessed by one of the smart cities, the outcome could be much worse because the amount of data collected in a city could much bigger that data collected in our phone which we mostly have a control over. It may not be a wise idea to leave data management to one entity, without advance protective measures and sufficient privacy protection.

Be smart and learn from the past first

As much as I would like to see the idea of automatic cities being implemented, as each city is moving gradually toward the idea of big city by introducing new surveillance gadgets and methods, I think we should first establish the ground rules to prevent the history from repeating itself. Enforcement related to privacy under the US regime is mainly under the Federal Trade Commission, which focuses on the consumer protection aspects of the privacy. The US could consider implementing a new federal commission or an independent private data regulator to be in charge of smart cities specifically to regulate and enforce how our data will be managed by each operator, to what extent our data can be collected or used, opt-out options for those who want to live in a city without being exposed to public, so on and so forth. Otherwise, I do not think we are ready to move toward being a smart city just yet.

Smart Cities is an IBM product, long already in existence. Huawei sells a layer called "Safe Cities," which adds facial recognition surveillance into all the other big-data operations elements. So you can buy IBM Smart Cities solutions for transport, waste management, encironmental maintenance, etc., and add a side-order of despotism from Huawei all in a highly-integrated package. If you are Barcelona, or Sao Paulo, that's not the future, that's now.

Sidewalk Labs is Alphabet's effort to turn that concept into one built and run by the data-miner, for but not under the ultimate control of the public. If the point was to write the essay about Sidewalk Labs, then the route to improvement is a more careful consideration of the precise political economy involved: the subsidization of public services through data-mining concessions, turning public services in the built environment into "free" cubes on cheese on the data-miners' mousetraps.

If the point is privacy, Chinese Communist Party automated despotism is the actual illustration at the center, not at the edge.

In either event, the conclusion, with its invocation of new agencies, needs to be improved by some specificity. Obviously new administrative structures presume new legislation. Knowing what laws to write would have to emerge from a clear definition of the problem and some overall architecture of solution within which an agency can be empowered to fill up the policy blanks over time. To be better, the essay needs both to establish that problem definition and suggest the largest contours of the appropriate response.

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r3 - 10 Feb 2020 - 13:39:54 - EbenMoglen
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