Smart cities, data collection and privacy: Getting it right

Wed, 2014-04-09 06:00 -- Jesse Berst

Jesse BerstData collection is a fundamental piece of the smart cities equation. Smart traffic sensors provide data that help cities improve transportation flow. Sensors on trash bins alert crews that it's time for a pick-up. Smart water meters communicate data that help utilities pinpoint leaks, water theft and improve operational efficiency.

Wim ElfrinkBut a recent interview in the UK Guardian with Wim Elfrink, EVP and smart cities lead with Cisco, a Council Global Partner, provides a thoughtful reminder for cities about the delicate connection between data collection and citizen privacy. Elfrink warns that if cities don't give citizens a say in whether or how their data is used, they may spark a backlash that strains future smart city initiatives.

"Having security policies, having privacy policies is a given. I think you have to first give the citizens the right to opt-in or opt-out," he said.

The Guardian piece cites backlash Nordstrom received last year when it revealed it was using sensors in stores to monitor customer activity via signals from their smartphones. It also pointed to the UK marketing company we told you about last year that had to shut down an advertising initiative that involved tracking individuals' movements as they walked near trash bins embedded with sensors. License plate scanners and red light cameras commonly used by public agencies are also under fire by by civil libertarians.

A 2013 column in the Boston Globe titled “The Too-Smart City” garnered a lot of attention. As we noted at the time, it took a “big brother is watching” slant on the smart cities movement:  “A city tracking its citizens, even for helpful reasons, encroaches on the personal liberty we count on in public spaces.”

Making privacy a priority at city hall

The Council's Smart Cities Readiness Guide – a vendor-neutral handbook designed to help city leaders develop smart city strategies – acknowledges that one of the greatest challenges for cities is to reassure residents that their rights will be respected and their data protected.

The Guide makes a number of recommendations on handling data privacy and security issues. Let's drill down on one in particular that encourages cities to make it a priority to produce clear privacy policies that are easily accessible.

These privacy policies should balance residents’ desire for privacy and control with the ability to gain access to data to provide better services. For example, they should stipulate:

    • Which data sets are owned by which stakeholders
    • What rights and protections are afforded by ownership
    • Which data sets are private (requiring authorization prior to sharing)
    • Which data sets can be shared with the city or authorized third parties
    • How data can be shared if defined protocols for making information anonymous are followed

For cities, publishing privacy rules can save time, money and headaches. But it can also unleash innovation.

Entrepreneurs are more comfortable building new products and services if they know the rules in advance and they know those rules will apply equally to their competition.

It’s one thing to have privacy rules. It’s another to ensure that residents and businesses know about them — and yet another to actively enforce them in collaboration with national and state/province level authorities.

Download a copy of the Readiness Guide (a free, one-time registration is required) to learn more about balancing data and privacy concerns.