Not so ‘innocent’ technology: smart cities, urban big data and privacy fears

What makes people uneasy about the technologies and data used in smart cities? How do privacy risks vary in different types of smart infrastructure?  Liesbet van Zoonen’s ‘Privacy concerns in smart cities’ hypothesizes how digitally enabled cities and urban big data spike privacy concerns among city dwellers and citizens. Without question, technologies that serve smart cities, and their populations, generate big data. But while the collection and analysis of this urban big data is meant to help cities respond better to citizen’s needs, it also causes concern around ownership, rights to privacy, and security.

Van Zoonen constructs a framework to hypothesize privacy concerns. These are informed by two recurring ‘dimensions’ in research about people’s concerns about privacy: people’s perception of data as personal and people privacy concerns in the context of the purpose of the data collection (sliding between service and surveillance in the extreme). These dimensions produce a framework that suggest concerns around privacy in data-applications in smart cities range from provoking little to no concern to raising controversy in the extreme. Technologies, applications, and types of data usage and collection can be mapped along a framework formed by these two dimensions.

The article demonstrates three examples: smart waste technologies, predictive policing, and social media monitoring. In discussing smart waste, she finds certain types of smart bins use sensors to measure waste levels and prompt further action. Other types can require user authentication by smartcard to regulate activity and prevent misuse. She locates these two types of smart waste management technologies along the privacy framework. While an authentication feature can add valuable capabilities to the system, the smart bin no longer remains an ‘innocent’ technology, writes Van Zoonen.

The framework shows how specific technologies, or smart infrastructure, in combination with how they require, generate, or collect data, can generate varying degrees of concerns about privacy. But Van Zoonen argues for the practical usefulness of this framework. The hypothetical framework provides clear directions to develop empirical and theoretical research into privacy concerns in the smart urban landscape, to help decision-makers understand risks around specific types of technologies and data usage and to provide local governments with a tool to identify privacy concerns among their citizens. 

Liesbet van Zoonen, author of Entertaining the citizen: when politics and popular culture converge, is Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Photo: Matthew Henry/Unsplash/cc

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