Privacy and Politics in Video Surveillance, Smart Cities and the Internet of Things

March 15, 2019 | Posted by

You might have already noticed, but politics is everywhere. Perhaps even more so of late. It touches everything. And when it’s working well, it makes the wheels go ‘round. And when it doesn’t, well, they don’t, go ‘round, as it were. Case in point, the recent, and longest government shutdown in US history. At this level, one could argue that it’s all about cooperation, that it takes a concerted effort on both sides of the aisle to bridge the gap. The function of a politician is supposed to be about working towards the greater good, improving the quality of life for all citizens, regardless of their political, gender, race or any other identification.   And while politics seems to have forgotten about this, the same holds true for a smart city. In smart city projects, cooperation and collaboration between stakeholders, between political entities, can rapidly advance how smart a city is or becomes if they’re all on the same page – keeping those wheels going ‘round, even as political control changes.

And just as pervasive as politics these days, is the issue of privacy. As the public gains more access to information and demands certain levels of protection of their personal information and preferences, the large-scale collection of public data continues to increase.  Take the recent pivot by Facebook to create a more “privacy-focused platform”. While it may be a myopic view of what privacy means for the individual, it’s at least giving privacy a first position when it comes to protecting our data. It’s an olive branch, a means to build trust.

We can extrapolate this to smart cities in that a city has to protect data to be successful, with building citizen trust being the principal factor. What will you do with my data? How will you encrypt that data, so it’s only used for the purposes of building a safer, smarter city? With a transparent, inter-agency, cross-departmental approach to privacy, every stakeholder has to subscribe to the same level and standard of data protection. Creating a multi-tenant infrastructure to house all that data is vital to a smart city initiative. Not only from an operational standpoint, but from the perspective of all political parties cooperating on a long-term strategy and vision. A good starting point would be creating a standardized set of data protection guidelines that would be adopted unilaterally, since it would set a clear boundary as to what data can and can’t be used for.  Currently, certain governments are taking a particularly “political” approach to this.

I’ve being on the speaking circuit lately and have been on many globally-represented panels from South Africa to Barcelona to California, to name a few. The first questions we always get from the public are: How are you using my data? Are you socially engineering me? Are you watching what I do? And, are you simply waiting for me to do something wrong? 

My view is that in our industry we almost exclusively focus on the good we’re able to do with technology, after all, it’s our job to sell it!. The public often sees it differently, and this is where politicians have an opportunity to give strong reassurances of privacy, protection and security. It could come in multiple forms. For one, giving the public more access to anonymized data, and other open social improvement schemes. Or take a look at what Sub-Saharan Africa is doing with Social Enterprise Rewards for data accuracy in health information and registration.  There is no reason this couldn’t be rolled out globally.

Privacy and politics can be a tightrope, but the benefits are great if we can get it right. Improved economic growth, improved safety, job creation, increased innovation, and a general better understanding of the needs and desires of citizens. Politicians must work harder to understand the role technology plays in the building of the cities of the future and improving quality of life for its people and technologists must work harder to explain the benefits with patience and without jargon. The end goal when it comes to smart cities, at the very least, needs to be a heavily skewed balance of people over profit.

I’ll start.  Any city leader, politician or non-technical person associated with smart cities is welcome to get in touch with me and I will GLADLY spend a couple of hours answering questions and having conversations with you. Connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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