Cities that don’t protect all data run the risk of collecting none

Fri, 2015-06-12 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi


Data lies at the heart of many city services and smart cities are collecting ever increasing amounts of it. While cities use the data to streamline operations and make people’s lives easier, more people are seeing the efforts as creepy.

Experts say unless cities act now to move beyond good intentions to solid privacy policies, they could soon feel a huge backlash. They warn time is running out to take those concerns seriously. The drive toward smart city apps will bring the privacy issue to a head sooner rather than later.

Privacy trumps convenience
Imagine a city app that always directs you to the closest available parking space to your office. Sounds like a dream, right? Surveys show a growing number of people see that as a nightmare.

For that app to work, the city would know who you are, where you work and when you arrive, among other things. Without safeguards on that data, people worry that sensitive data could be available to anyone and used in the worst possible ways.

Council Lead Partner Cisco has been warning cities for years about the public’s privacy concerns. It has found that unless cities clearly disclose what they do with the data and how they protect it, more people will opt-out of smart services or refuse to use them altogether.

And the concerns aren’t just with a tiny tinfoil hat fringe group. A new study from security expert TRUSTe finds 80% of people say their privacy is more important than the convenience offered by smart devices.

Some cities aren’t making it easy
Privacy watchdogs are battling a proposal in New York that would give the city detailed, real-time information about everyone using app-based ride services, like Uber. The city would even get the personal information of people who booked a ride but cancelled before the car arrived.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission doesn’t specify why it needs the information, what it will be used for or how it will be protected. The commission is no stranger to privacy issues. It’s the same group that investigated Uber for using personal information like that to spy on its riders.

A privacy role model
At the other end of the spectrum is Seattle, which is working to develop a city-wide privacy policy that covers all services. The city worked with stakeholders from all departments and outside experts to define six privacy principles to protect personal information.  The outside experts were part of a 10-member privacy advisory committee that included several lawyers, a law professor, the ACLU, and a privacy strategist from Council Lead Partner Microsoft, among other business leaders.

Seattle is now finalizing its privacy toolkit and evaluating its existing privacy safeguards. An education effort will follow.

It’s an extensive effort, but cities that fail to make it may find they have very limited data to work with as citizens decide their privacy is more important than convenience. 

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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