Surveillance Cities

Is privacy dead as a concept, and should I care? I asked myself this as I stepped from the gaze of multiple CCTV cameras, touched in with my Oyster card, and picked up the Tube wifi, all the while following a route provided by the navigation-App, CityMapper.

These data trails that we leave as we traverse the city are incredibly useful for transport planners. By understanding how we really move, transport providers can make the system better for everyone.

But of course, all the tools used to create smart cities, such as sensors, cameras, geo-tracking, pattern recognition and predictive analytics, are precisely what the police and security services use to detect – and prevent – wrongdoing. They can easily become tools of surveillance and identification.

So, should we simply accept that we are being constantly tracked, quantified and analysed in the interests of making our cities better and safer? Or should we worry that we are heading recklessly into a world that is part ‘Big Brother’, part ‘Minority Report’?

Certainly, the police are harnessing smart technologies, and becoming ever more sophisticated in their use of data for crime prediction. When I visited the Real Time Crime Centre in New York, I went with a prior vision of the overweight cop, scarfing a donut, while bashing out a report on a typewriter. Instead, I encountered sleek police in a sleek centre, using cutting-edge technology, in real time, to solve crime.

Increasingly, police forces across the world using are data analytics, facial recognition, license plate scanning and so on to understand where crime is most likely to take place, and when. Law enforcement agencies can use these insights to target resources.

There have been protests that the crime algorithms are nothing more than racist profiling, and that the biases in the data methodologies just compound existing inequalities.

There was concern, too, about the traffic and navigation App, WAZE, using crime data to suggest where not to drive. Is this keeping drivers safe, or stigmatizing neighbourhoods? Potentially, this risks hurting businesses, lowering property prices and reinforcing ghettos.

Of course we want criminals to be caught and to feel safe. But one of the attractions of moving to the city used to be the possibility of anonymity. Now, the city is beginning to feel more like a ‘digital panopticon’, with eyes – not just in a central tower - but everywhere around us.

Should individuals be allowed to opt out of the smart city? And is that even possible any more? Whilst we aren’t quite yet at the point of Dave Eggar’s scarily prescient book ‘The Circle’, when Mercer is relentlessly hounded when he tries to go off-grid, it does seem that merely by being an urban citizen and by using services and infrastructure we are consenting to be part of a comprehensive web of tracking and analysis.

Talking to Stefaan Verhulst, Co founder of GovLab, he suggested that the focus should be less on privacy and more on “‘Data responsibility’” We should ask, he said, “How is the data collected? How is it judged? And how is it used? Are the judgements, which can have a big impact on people’s lives, based on evidence and properly informed? Are there inbuilt biases?”

The design studio IF have created a ‘data licence’ that puts people in control of their data, letting them set the rules of engagement. By answering a set of straightforward questions, users customise their data licence to form a contract with the other party.

So maybe this is the deal: that we accept being surveilled and for our data to be used, if there is a payoff in more efficient infrastructure and safer streets, and if we receive certain safeguards.

Personally, I’m OK with being tracked and analysed, if I’m informed that it’s happening. No one likes to feel they’re being spied on. And I’d like my data to be used only for the purpose for which it was gathered, not sold on to multiple other parties. And my data should be appropriately anonymised: if an organisation is counting footfall, it really doesn’t need to know my birthday and postcode.

Most importantly, I don’t want to be reduced to a passive datum. The smart city should be one in which I engage actively as a citizen. As Professor David Harvey argues “The right to the a right to change ourselves by changing the city. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

I think it is inevitable that smart cities will be surveillance cities, but we should ensure that the surveillance is done responsibly, and that citizens can use digital tools to proactively shape that surveillance, and their cities.


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