A smart city refers to a connected city which uses live data collection to manage its day-to-day operations more efficiently, safely and perhaps sustainably. For instance, monitoring the number of people entering a metro station could influence the metro timetable, bringing more trains to particularly busy stations when necessary.
“While many of these benefits are real, we must be vigilant to ensure that they don’t come at too high a cost, as the adoption of such technologies can also lead to an unacceptable increase in government surveillance,” wrote Chad Marlow of the ACLU and Maryiam Saifuddin, an Open Cities Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation (a non-profit campaigning for open government), in a blog post.
Crucial to the running of a smart city is data collection throughout the city, as vehicles, buildings and surroundings are monitored, often with cameras. According to the ACLU blog post, this becomes concerning when humans are also monitored. Surveillance technology – such as facial recognition technology – tends to disproportionately target ethnic minority communities and other vulnerable groups.
“In a city blanketed with cameras – including in LED light bulbs found in streetlights – it would be very easy for the government to track which political meetings, religious institutions, doctors’ offices, and other sensitive locations people go to and to focus its attention even more on traditionally over-policed communities,” they wrote. “This is why these ‘Smart Cities’ are also referred to as ‘Surveillance Cities’.”
The writers call on the public to be notified of plans to deploy human-monitoring technologies in cities, as well as to be made aware of their potential impact (including on privacy and civil liberties) such that the adoption of these technologies is subject to public input, particularly the input of over-targeted groups. In May, the ACLU and other civil liberties groups publicly criticised Amazon for providing facial recognition services to US law enforcement, which they argued could threaten the liberties of over-policed communities.
Now, the ACLU suggests that a law requiring transparency about these technologies before they are introduced could help prevent smart cities threatening privacy and civil liberties.
This proposed bill would also require open hearings, sign-off from elected officials on these technologies and their proposed uses, a publicly-available ‘surveillance impact report’ which sets out potential threats to civil liberties and civil rights and how these threats can be mitigated, and use policy laying out how the surveillance technology may and may not be used (including how data is handled).
The bill would also forbid non-disclosure agreements between city authorities and technology companies, in order to protect public right to information over corporate interests.
“A city cannot be truly innovative and respect the rights of its residents if only a sliver of public officials have the power to speak for – or to ignore – the broader community,” the writers concluded.