Don’t Tread on Me: Smart Cities and Private Information

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 11th, 2018.

In a society where surveillance is the norm, people have grown accustomed to the idea of having their information sold for profit to companies they have never even heard of. With the rise of social media, anyone with an internet connection has access to unlimited information, and the ability to broadcast information about themselves more easily than ever. However, as the ability to share information becomes more convenient, so too do the issues around privacy and personal security. Concerns about government surveillance and companies having unprecedented access to private user information have surfaced. The subject of smart cities is not exempted from these concerns either.

Smart Cities

The idea of “smart cities” came about as a way for governments to harness the innovations of the digital revolution in order to better serve their citizens. However, the inequality of the data exhaust streams upon which cities are built raises fears that cities will only exacerbate racial and demographic inequality, not improve it, not to mention potentially putting restrictions on societies instead of making them more free. After all, the question has to be raised as to what governments will do what such a treasure trove of personal data gathered from their citizens.

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength

Government surveillance and law enforcement have the greatest potential to abuse private data. Once they begin assembling massive archives of sensitive data on their citizens, much of which is mandated by law and whose cost is involuntarily borne by taxpayers, such archives might become simply irresistible to marketers and data brokers. Kalev Leetaru, writing for Forbes, mentions Rosslyn, Virginia as an example. Anyone within that city’s limits who works from home are required to register with the city and provide them with a complete inventory of their workspace down to the furniture and provide extensive detail about their professional lives to the city on an ongoing basis.

The city also further receives information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that it uses to augment the records it holds on its citizens. Moreover, failure to provide any of the requested information will resulted in the sheriffs deputies dispatched to raid the new citizens’ home, seize their possessions, and auction them off. Shortly after moving into Rosslyn and registering with the city, Leetaru began receiving spam emails about events in the surrounding emails. It turned out that that spammers received his contact information from the city, which was making use of its involuntarily collected tax data to create commercial-oriented mailing lists for surrounding business districts.

Upon reaching out to the city, he found that the administration was freely sharing all of the personal information without any kind of written contract or legal document outlining what the recipients could do with it, thereby giving third parties carte blanc to do whatever they want with the sensitive data. The city acknowledged that it was freely sharing spreadsheets of email addresses, but that it expected those email address would be held to an honor system where by the third party would write bespoke, tailored emails to them, rather than en masse spam.

Furthermore, the city also conceded that it had no data privacy policy, and had no plans to develop one. It confirmed that it planned to continue to market its citizens’ information to external organizations without any kind of legal contact or policy laying out how and where it can be used. Leetaru concluded that the city administration does not treat the monetization of citizens’ data as a temporary oversight, but more as a permanent point of profit.

Such a notion has damning implications for cash-strapped cities which might be looking for ways to drive profit. At least with Facebook or any data-gathering social network, the user can choose to opt-out and stop using those networks. A citizen is unable to log out of a city, where its administration can send sheriffs to arrest non-compliant citizens and seize private property.

Such advancement in technology has also allowed governments to ignore basic constitutional rights. The emergence of smart cities comes along with the advent of the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting data from US phone companies. The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Only a warrant issued on probable cause can justify a search. Perhaps the Fourth Amendment might have applied to physical search and seizure, but the ability for a city to demand personal information on threat of arrest and seizure of private property sounds like a direct contradiction of that law.

The Bottom Line

People are living in an age with an unprecedented level of access to all kinds of information. Users of social media and networks can contact their far away friends in real time, and have access to events right as they develop. Such technology was the stuff of dreams, only imagined in science fiction stories in the late 20th century. Yet, the unprecedented access to citizens’ private information is something only imagined in George Orwell’s 1984 as well. Law enforcement and government agencies having access to personal information of every citizen carries unfortunate implications for privacy and civil liberties. Moreover, in the case of Rosslyn, the city’s willingness to sell its citizens’ data to third parties, alongside its lack of regard its citizens’ privacy means that the future of smart cities might carry detrimental notions for privacy and liberty.