Smile, Your City Is Watching You

June 2, 2019

Local governments must protect your privacy as they turn to “smart city” technology.

Walking through the streets of New York City, you can feel the thrill of being lost in the crowd. As throngs of people filter past, each going about their days, it seems possible to blend in without being noticed.

But as municipalities and companies pursue the dream of “smart cities,” creating hyper-connected urban spaces designed for efficiency and convenience, this experience is receding farther and farther from reality.

Consider the LinkNYC kiosks installed across New York City — more than 1,700 are already in place, and there are plans for thousands more. These kiosks provide public Wi-Fi, free domestic phone calls and USB charging ports.

Yet the LinkNYC kiosks are not just a useful public service. They are owned and operated by CityBridge (a consortium of companies that includes investment and leadership from Sidewalk Labs — a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google) and are outfitted with sensors and cameras that track the movements of everyone in their vicinity. Once you connect, the network will record your location every time you come within 150 feet of a kiosk.

And although CityBridge calls this information “anonymized” because it doesn’t include your name or email address — the system instead records a unique identifier for each device that connects — when millions of these data points are collected and analyzed, such data can be used to track people’s movements and infer intimate details of their lives.

In other words, this free Wi-Fi network is funded the same way as Google itself: using data to sell ads. As Dan Doctoroff, a deputy mayor in the Bloomberg administration and now the founder and C.E.O. of Sidewalk Labs, told a conference in 2016, the company expects to “make a lot of money from this.”

LinkNYC exemplifies the trend in “smart cities” today: the deployment of technologies that expand the collection of personal data by government and corporations. Certainly, this data can be used for beneficial outcomes: reducing traffic, improving infrastructure and saving energy. But the data also includes detailed information about the activities of everyone in the city — data that could be used in numerous detrimental ways.

Whether we recognize it or not, technologies that cities deploy today will play a significant role in defining the social contract of the future. And as it stands, these smart city technologies have become covert tools for increasing surveillance, corporate profits and, at worst, social control. This undemocratic architecture increases government and corporate power over the public.

First, smart city technologies make it easier than ever for local and federal law enforcement to identify and track individuals. The police can create and gain access to widespread surveillance by acquiring their own technology, partnering with companies and requesting access to data and video footage held by companies. In Los Angeles, for example, automatic license plate readers recorded the location of more than 230 million vehicles in 2016 and 2017, information that, through data-sharing agreements, could have found its way into the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Similarly, the police in suburban Portland, Ore., hoping to aid crime investigations, have used Amazon’s facial-recognition software to identify more than 1,000 people who have appeared in camera footage.

Second, the smart city is a dream come true for companies eager to increase the scale and scope of data they collect about the public. Companies that place cameras and sensors on Wi-Fi kiosks, trash cans and streetlights will gain what had been unattainable insights about the behavior of individuals. And given the vast reach of hard-to-trace data brokers

that gather and share data without the public’s knowledge or consent, one company’s data can easily end up in another’s hands. All of this data can be used to exclude people from credit, jobs, housing and health care in ways that circumvent anti-discrimination laws.

Once these smart city technologies are installed, it will be almost impossible for anyone to avoid being tracked. Sensors will monitor the behavior of anyone with a Bluetooth- or Wi-Fi-connected device. Given the expansive reach of cameras and the growing use of facial-recognition software, it is increasingly impossible to escape surveillance even by abandoning one’s personal digital technology.

This reality suggests that if you want to avoid being tracked in a smart city, you must stay out of that city.

Read the article here: Smile, Your City Is Watching You