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Are Smart Cities a Threat to Data Privacy?by@zacamos
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Are Smart Cities a Threat to Data Privacy?

by Zac AmosMarch 28th, 2023
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For smart cities to function, they must collect data — but can they achieve true data privacy? Smart cities leverage data through the use of IoT, AI, computer vision, smartphones, and more. This opens them up to data privacy risks like surveillance abuse, data breaches, bias and discrimination, and a lack of government transparency. The privacy-by-design (PBD) framework may provide a solution, but it remains to be seen whether true data privacy can be achieved in a smart city.
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The smart city is a new trend in the built environment that is expected to take hold in the coming years. Smart cities are cropping up worldwide, from Singapore and Oslo to Auckland and Amsterdam. New technologies such as information and communication technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are expected to revolutionize how cities manage their people and infrastructure.


However, one concern emerging when it comes to smart cities is data protection and privacy. For smart cities to function, they must collect data. How will this pan out for citizens and is true data privacy achievable for smart cities?

Defining Data Privacy

Data privacy is an aspect of data protection that prioritizes the proper collection, storage, handling, access, retention and security of data. It’s not a concept, but a set of practices or principles organizations and governments follow to safeguard personal data or personally identifiable information (PII). PII typically consists of social security numbers, credit card numbers, banking information and addresses.


The amount of data generated today is more than anyone could've ever imagined. It's almost incomprehensible how much data people create, whether from their laptops, smartphones, tablets or even the vehicles they use to get from place to place.

How Smart Cities Leverage Data

Imagine if the technology powering a smart home extended outside of the house — this is the core concept of a smart city. Smart cities use various technologies, including sensors, cameras and other hardware and software solutions. Some of the most common smart city-enabling technologies are:


  • IoT
  • AI
  • Machine learning
  • Computer vision (CV)
  • Big data
  • Smartphones
  • 5G
  • Blockchain
  • Camera with facial recognition


So, what can smart cities do with data gathered from these technologies? They can use the information to govern many processes, from waste management and air pollution to traffic congestion and littering. These technologies can often communicate with one another, allowing cities to benefit from an interconnected network and data coming through in real-time.

Data Privacy Risks in a Smart City

Smart cities offer plenty of opportunities to improve the quality of life for citizens. For example, cameras using CV may help reduce or even prevent crime. City governments can use blockchain technology to establish smart contracts with third parties. Major buildings can use IoT technology — such as RFID sensors — to implement access control.


While these scenarios benefit smart cities, they also come with inherent risks. Since smart cities rely on collecting and analyzing information, this reliance creates data privacy threats.

Surveillance Abuse

Virtually everyone agrees government surveillance is something to avoid, even in today's digitally driven world. Smart city tech includes sensors and cameras that are so advanced they can monitor citizens' behavior, interactions with each other and movements. This may make citizens feel uncomfortable or that "Big Brother" is watching their every move.


For example, the IoT is becoming more popular in the retail sector, where surveillance is already common. Now, implementing IoT can allow retailers to collect data on how many shoppers are in their stores, their shopping behaviors, and any crucial patterns. While this may help retailers with marketing strategies, it could also easily make customers uncomfortable, driving them even farther away from brick-and-mortar stores.

Data Breaches and Cybersecurity Threats

The cybersecurity landscape is evolving rapidly, with new threats emerging every day. If smart cities collect personal, biometric or financial data regarding their citizens, it could fall into the wrong hands if a data breach or cybersecurity incident occurs. If data breaches happen, instances of identity theft and other malicious acts against citizens could likely increase.


Citizens may feel weary about the government collecting so much data about them and lose trust in the government's ability to protect their data if a data breach occurs. Data breaches are becoming more common and intense as hackers use sophisticated methods to launch attacks.

Bias and Discrimination

Stories about AI and facial recognition have emerged where the technologies falsely profile individuals based on race, behavior, personal attributes and other demographics. Unfortunately, bias is often baked into the outcomes AI is trying to predict. These biases can perpetuate racial and economic inequities. This is a major issue smart city management would have to be aware of and address.

Lack of Transparency and Understanding

Another risk smart cities must address is the lack of understanding citizens have regarding how local and national authorities collect their data, which data is considered PII and how the smart city uses it. Educating the public on the city's data and privacy practices is necessary for citizens to trust their city government.


This could also make it challenging for cities to receive enough interest from investors looking to support smart initiatives. If cities cannot be transparent with citizens about their data practices, it could lead to an almost dystopian future.

How Smart Cities Can Navigate Data Privacy

A popular framework in the cybersecurity industry is privacy-by-design (PBD). The PBD framework is a proactive, transparent and user-centered approach to security. It can span across industries using digital technologies.


Essentially, a PBD framework focuses on designing hardware and software solutions with inherent security protections and privacy measures. By default, these solutions help safeguard personal data and PII to ensure systems run smoothly, security posture is strong, and people can feel confident that their data is protected.


Smart cities looking to protect their citizens' data further should already be using robust data protection measures and cybersecurity tools. However, they can also follow a PBD approach when implementing new technologies.

Can Smart Cities Ever Fully Protect Personal Data?

While smart cities offer a range of services to improve citizens' quality of life, some drawbacks come with leveraging the latest technologies. Not to mention, these detractors can cause locals not to want their city to go digital. Smart city managers and other stakeholders must determine if it's possible to maintain data privacy while implementing various smart city initiatives.


It's still uncertain whether smart cities are a genuine risk to society. As more emerge worldwide, the answer will likely become more apparent. Ultimately, those managing smart cities must understand the seriousness of data privacy and cybersecurity.