The smarter the city, the more stringent the surveillance. Are we happy with this trade-off?

  • Urban problems need smart solutions
  • Too much of a good thing: are we creating a surveillance state?
  • Our apps shred the illusion of privacy

Smart cities are capturing our imagination and giving us a glimpse of the future. By seamlessly integrating high-tech solutions with creative thinking, they’re promising richer, fuller, and easier lives. They do this by providing solutions to growing urban problems. And if you’ve followed the tech, you know that much of this improvement is the result of a careful optimisation of services through the integration of smart sensors and even smarter algorithms that drive them.

Urban problems need smart solutions

For instance, in the UK alone, daily traffic congestion cost a shocking £30.8 billion last year. That’s a number that’s hard to ignore, and it points to a problem that will only get worse with time. Until we replace human drivers with self-driving cars, the best solution is a complex system that can measure traffic flow, predict snarls and jams, and adjust traffic control to ease the pressure. Another growing problem is crime, and smart cities can help with that, too. From smart locks that use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to detect your presence and automatically unlock your front door, to smart cameras and sensors that use the latest facial recognition algorithms to detect terrorists before they kill, smart tech can help police our streets and protect our homes. But though these technologies offer powerful new solutions, they come at a pretty steep price.

Three laptops and other smart tech solutions floating in the air between two hands
From smart locks that use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to detect your presence and automatically unlock your front door, to smart cameras and sensors that use the latest facial recognition algorithms to detect terrorists before they kill, smart tech can help police our streets and protect our homes.

Too much of a good thing: are we creating a surveillance state?

As we leverage technology to make our lives easier and safer, we open ourselves to forms of surveillance that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Is this a trade-off we can live with? Smart traffic control doesn’t just measure the mass movement of cars. To really work, it keeps track of each and every vehicle. In practice, these intelligent systems know when you leave your home, where you go, every stop you make, and when you return. And facial recognition systems don’t just focus on criminals, they track everyone as they walk the streets. Unless you’re a privacy expert, you’d be surprised to know that the artificial intelligence (AI) that powers these systems can gain surprising insight into your personal life – down to the dirty details. That trip to your lover’s flat – yeah, it saw that. That time you left the pub after a few too many pints – it saw that, too. That quick kiss with a coworker in the car park – you get the idea. In fact, it probably knows a good deal more about you than you think, including many of your secrets. Smart locks, for instance, know exactly when you come and go, who’s with you, and how often they drop by. That kind of information is often sold or shared, and just how much the smart world knows about you can be scary.

We trust our governments to balance security and privacy. But as Chris Mellor warns, “AI-enabled computing can recognise faces and vehicles. What city administration will be able to resist using these technologies to detect citizens infringing rules and regulations; jaywalkers where that is illegal for example; invalid vehicle parking; vehicle speeding; citizens entering prohibited areas; illegal gatherings; crowd control; and so forth.” Is that a level of surveillance you’d accept? You might not have a choice.

And it’s not only a problem in traffic regulation and crime-fighting. Retail, too, is feeling the crunch of generational shifts and emerging habits. 2017 is shaping up to be a cruel year, and we’ve already seen brands like Ann Taylor and Sears announcing massive store closures. To better connect with customers, retailers are leveraging big data and AI. They hope that by collecting massive amounts of customer data, they can advertise better, draw customers into their brick-and-mortar storefronts, and engage window-shoppers with personalised, real-time marketing. But this is a surveillance system in which we willingly open ourselves to prying eyes.

To make this work, retailers need to convince you to release your private data, and we often can’t really grasp just how much information we’re sharing about ourselves. Indeed, the amount of information your give away without realising it is shocking. Every app you use, every Google search you make, works against your privacy. Remember the famous case of the pregnant teenager who was offered baby products by Target before she told her parents? Target’s smart ad system used her online searches to figure out she was pregnant, offering her personalised deals on baby products. Needless to say, her parents were surprised and angry that Target was pushing baby products onto their under-aged daughter, only to discover quickly afterwards that they had a surprise on the way.

Our apps shred the illusion of privacy

That was 2012, and a lot’s changed since then, but not much for the better. When Judith Duportail, a reporter for The Guardian, asked Tinder for its records of her personal data, she was horrified. “Some 800 pages came back containing information such as my Facebook ‘likes’, my photos from Instagram (even after I deleted the associated account), my education, the age-range of men I was interested in, how many times I connected, when and where every online conversation with every single one of my matches happened… the list goes on.” Highlight that ratio in your mind – 800 pages of information from only one app. How many apps do you use?

And it’s important to understand that by tracking where you go, cross-referencing your social media profiles, checking your email for keywords, and analysing this information, good AI can provide more than a peek into your private life. These are the simple things you agree to in the privacy policies you accept without a second thought. Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology at Carnegie Mellon University, calls this “secondary implicit disclosed information […] Tinder knows much more about you when studying your behaviour on the app. It knows how often you connect and at which times; the percentage of white men, black men, Asian men you have matched; which kinds of people are interested in you; which words you use the most; how much time people spend on your picture before swiping you, and so on. Personal data is the fuel of the economy. Consumers’ data is being traded and transacted for the purpose of advertising.”

That’s scary stuff, and you could be forgiven for looking at your mobile with more than a hint of suspicion. Privacy advocates worry that we’re not cautious enough about what we reveal – and what’s done with that data in the background should have everyone worried. Unfortunately, our privacy laws and personal habits haven’t kept up with the advances in tech, and since we need the solutions smart cities offer, it’s nearly impossible to say no. But we should be more aware that there’s an implicit balance or trade-off, one in which we sacrifice privacy for gains in efficiency, convenience, and safety.

Schedule your free, inspiring session with our expert futurists.


Related updates

This site is registered on as a development site.