The Balancing Act Between Smart City Security and Privacy

February 26, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer
Smart City Surveillance Cameras

Greater needs for data security have surfaced alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, privacy issues – related to contact-tracing apps, for example – weigh heavily, but that surveillance debate is just the tip of the iceberg. A new set of priorities is taking precedence in smart-city services rolling out across the globe.

COVID-19 a Catalyst

Speaking to 6GWorldTM, Zaheer Allam pointed out how smart cities had been booming before the pandemic started. The Deakin University (Australia) Research Associate nevertheless said it shifted priorities in the sector.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, just when it was an epidemic and transitioning to a pandemic in China, and China and then Southeast Asia started turning to lockdowns, we saw it rushed technological adoption in cities, trying to get data to understand where the virus was migrating and so on,” he said.

“What really interested me is looking at the COVID situation and how this situation is being changed to favour technological input in cities in search of the virus and to prepare for regulatory post-virus. I saw it like an opportunity for other technologies to serve as this wave of innovation and that’s where I saw 6G being the next wave could benefit largely from this,” Allam, who co-wrote a paper entitled “Future (post-COVID) digital, smart and sustainable cities in the wake of 6G”, added.

Allam said there’s a misconception, in that many policy makers see smart cities as brand new, futuristic communities. In reality, he said, it’s about meeting future technological demands in cities existing today.

“It’s really about sharing data and getting intelligence out of cities to better inform decisions,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be a new city. It can just be an upgrade of an existing urban fabric by rendering its infrastructure with more efficiency, while still keeping its cultural identity.”

Open Spaces an Issue

Allam argued the cultural aspect is also relevant to calls for sustainability. It’s not just about reducing carbon emissions, although that’s important too, he said.

“We don’t even think about culture,” he said. “What about open spaces, for example? How do we revitalise those open spaces, because those are equally important to sustainability, because quality of life is also an indicator of sustainability because of more happiness and people can really thrive in the community.

“In this sense, when you talk about smart cities, there’s sort of a deviation from the smart-city concept, which is the safe-city concept. We get into a very uncomfortable discussion, because when we talk about the need for open spaces, cities are talking about safe-city cameras pointing at those open spaces. I think it’s very interesting to see how the discussion evolves over the next few years.”

Mika Hakosalo, who works as a Project Manager for Stockholm, Sweden, spoke at the virtual IoT Tech Expo Europe in late 2020. He described smart cities as potentially meaning different things: Smart buildings, smart traffic management, smart city infrastructure, smart energy use, etc. He also went into detail as to how Stockholm has addressed open spaces.

“In Stockholm, we have a very large passive infrastructure, optical fibre network…. We have that in almost all buildings, almost all the inhabitants have it in their homes or companies. We have also that in the street crossings, we have also in the street environments,” he said. “So, we wanted to look, could we use that and on top of that build sensor networks that would be common that could be used by basically any department in the city? And then we would have a shared common IoT platform where this data would be collected and all applications would develop.

“We had camera-based sensors that are reading the images and anonymising that data so there’s no violation of privacy and then we had Wi-Fi nodes that were detecting a mobile phone. If it’s enabled the Wi-Fi, we get the same node telling [us] that this identity has passed [by in the area]. We don’t know who the person is, but we know this mobile phone has passed.”

One of the goals of these initiatives is to reduce carbon emissions while improving quality of life as part of a multi-city project called GrowSmarter. Stockholm’s climate goals are especially ambitious, Hakosalo noted, with the city, named the world’s smartest early last year, aiming to be completely CO2 free by 2040. However, privacy issues still arise in the face of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives citizens greater control over their personal data.

“What we wanted to do is to create a real-time visualisation of carbon-dioxide emissions, especially in transport where we have the greatest challenges. We didn’t know what was causing carbon-dioxide emissions, at what hours, how the weather was affecting that,” he said. “Based on the collection of data, we could see the peaks. We could see what is causing them and the thing is […] we can also go into that data and see […] vehicle types we would like to have less of in the area…

“We have not yet scaled this up in the city, because […] the camera we were using could be doing lots of other things as well […] That has faced some GDPR issues and that’s something that we will be working on this year to solve and our target is to have this system in 500 street crossings in Stockholm in the coming years,” he added, noting in a separate IoT Tech Expo talk that applying for a single camera-surveillance permit can take more than a year, so 500 cameras could theoretically take 500.

Public Gains vs. Public Concerns

Mitch Tseng, Chair of the Testbed Council at the Industrial Internet Consortium, spoke to 6GWorld on where Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) may be headed. He brought up electronic license plates as one possible ITS solution, whereby radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology enables efficiency gains on toll roads and ID verification in private garages. There are other use cases, but, anecdotally, similar privacy issues arise.

“A colleague in New York tried to figure out the traffic flow in the main areas in downtown during rush hour. So somebody came up with the idea that every car has an easy tag. [We can detect] how long it takes for this tag to travel to another sensor on the street. By collecting that data over a whole day, processing it, then I can know the traffic flow, the average flow speed, everything can be done, right? No, you’ve got to take it to courts. [People might say] ‘You are invading my privacy, because you didn’t let me know you were using that to track my car,’” he said.

Tseng said education is one possible way around the privacy issue, alluding to the necessity of solving it eventually. After all, the potential benefits are too worthwhile to dismiss out of hand.

“For example, when you try to go work, before you actually go outside, I can already help you plan the route. By the time that you pull out of your garage or you start the engine, I’ve already downloaded some information for you to tell you, ‘Oh, this is the normal route you go, but there is construction going on. So, it’s better for you to go the other route.’ And not only for individual purposes,” he said, arguing it could help direct traffic and reduce congestion after an accident on the highway.

However, he said, there are hurdles that must be overcome from that public-education/ communication standpoint: “For example, [with regard to the] New York City test, [they] could announce in advance ‘We are not going to use that information to track your car. We are not interested in that.’ So, it’s just through communication to ease the worry or even panic sometimes from the public, but, unfortunately, I do not think we have done enough on that part.”

Feature image courtesy of Zapp2Photo (via Shutterstock).

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