Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Privacy & the governance of smart cities

Perry Keller from the Dickson Poon School of Law at King's, gives his views on smart city technologies and their impact on urban living. 

In many countries, including the United Kingdom, smart city technologies are now a key issue in the governance of urban centres. These technologies bring substantial benefits to the operation of major cities, underpinning transport services, energy efficiency, waste disposal and public security, to name a few. The potential to make dramatic improvements in urban services has convinced most governments that smart city technologies are indispensable to the effective management of global urbanisation.

It is clear that the urban future is likely to be one of widespread systems of data production and collection, much of which will be processed through fast evolving methods of big data analytics. However, that vision raises multiple questions about the prospects for liberal democratic societies. These not only include worrying implications for social justice, as inequalities become embedded into the intelligent infrastructures of cities, but also the prospect of unacceptable compromises of human dignity and liberty in the drive to regulate urban populations and spaces efficiently.

Data production and collection in smart cities means the daily harvesting of vast amounts of personally identifiable information. Some of that data, directly or indirectly, concerns health, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, associations and beliefs. By reason of population density, cities have been disproportionately large sources of personal information collected and used for state or commercial purposes. Indeed, given the importance of cities as the incubators of the state, capitalism, democracy and liberalism, the work and lives of their citizens has attracted close scrutiny over many centuries. Smart city technologies, including recent advances in artificial intelligence, have however exponentially increased the production and collection of urban personal data.

Anyone present in a major developed city is now likely to be exposed to a range of data collection technologies. These range from directed surveillance (such as CCTV), through programmed monitoring (such as sensors fixed to infrastructure) to personal data provided more or less voluntarily through participation in social media and localised service apps (such as weather, mapping and transport).

The general consequences of collecting and using huge amounts of personal data on this scale are obvious enough. Anonymity and obscurity, once associated with big city life, is vanishing as cities become places of omni-surveillance. The potential implications for liberal democracy can be seen in two opposing, but also complementary, dystopic visions of this radically new form of urban life. The first envisions a tamed, managed and harmonious city where citizens are cocooned in algorithmic anticipation of their needs and choices. Here, the surprise and discord of contemporary life are replaced by neutralising efficiency. In the second, urban life is fraught with the anxieties of system hacking, computer inflicted violence and deception and other cybercrimes, while citizens feel the constant eyes and ears of a remote state.

More optimistically, there is widespread awareness of the challenge liberal democracies now face in addressing the social and political consequences of this technological turn in governance. To find effective responses that place personal autonomy at the heart of that governance, current research and debate is drawing on informatics, while also inspired by the insights of the humanities and social sciences. Reasonable transparency and accountability will however not be easily achieved. Big data algorithms are often proprietary or confidential in nature, collectively designed, constantly modified and potentially inaccurate. The data analytics of smart cities is thus vastly complex, messy and evolving quickly, while effective governance on the other hand needs to be achieved at the level of basic software design and operation.

Fundamental legal rights to information privacy and data protection offer powerful tools for interrogating and clarifying the many practical and policy problems created by such messy systems and will ultimately be a key element in smart city governance. But there are also risks in relying on law-based solutions to the problems of algorithmic decision making. Legal responses to the challenges of the smart city could easily become part of the apparatus of control, offering ineffective rights while legitimating surveillance and power.

My work at King’s on the protection of privacy and personal autonomy in smart cities is aimed at producing models for better transparency and accountability in the governance of our radically changing urban environment. That work requires inter-disciplinary collaboration to map and understand the high velocity use of personal data by the many governmental and commercial services that create the disjointed omni-surveillance of contemporary city life. Plainly, the challenges for traditional ideas of law based, liberal democratic governance are immense. But however powerful algorithms have become in shaping our lives, they are designed and used to pursue the purposes of public and commercial bodies. These bodies are still subject to democracy and law, so the big data infrastructure they control must be too.