Perils of smart cities

Here'a an excellent piece on the promise and peril of "smart cities," which could be part of a system to make cities fairer and more transparent, or could form the basis for an authoritarian lockdown. As Adam Greenfield says, "[the centralized model of the smart city is] disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism." The author mentions Greenfield's upcoming book "The City is Here for You to Use" (a very promising-looking read) as well as Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, which is out in the fall.

These critics are advocating not that cities shun technology, but that they foster a more open debate about how best to adopt it—and a public airing of the questions cities need to ask. One question is how deeply cities rely on private companies to set up and maintain the systems they run on. Smart-city projects rely on sophisticated infrastructure that municipal governments aren’t capable of creating themselves, Townsend points out, arguing that the more they rely on software, the more cities are increasingly shunting important civic functions and information into private hands. In recent talks and in his upcoming book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” Townsend portrays companies as rushing to become the indispensable middlemen without which the city cannot function.

Cities can easily lose leverage to private companies their citizens rely on, as the persistent battles of political leaders against telecom companies over price increases show. And private-sector software can operate behind a veil: Townsend says that while cities have made lots of data freely available online, there’s less concern about opening up the proprietary tools used to analyze that data—software that might help a city official decide who is eligible for services, or which neighborhoods are crime hotspots. “It’s the algorithms in government that need to be brought out to the light of day, not the data,” he says. “What I worry about are the de facto laws that are being coded in software without public scrutiny.”

Another concern is what will be done to protect the huge amount of data cities can gather about their citizens. The wealth of video at the Boston Marathon bombings, though it came from private cameras, showed how useful surveillance footage can be—and also how pervasive. Cameras, sensors, and tracking technologies like the Mass Pike’s EZPass can reveal a great deal about your life: where you live and travel, what you buy, even what time you take a shower. Smart grid utility-metering systems, for instance, collect and transmit detailed energy consumption information, which help consumers understand and curb their energy use but can also reveal their habits. As such, they have come under fire for threatening privacy and civil liberties, and several states have adopted legislation governing what kind of data can be shared with third parties and how customers can opt out. In Massachusetts, automated license plate recognition technology used by police cruisers has raised concerns about authorities tracking the whereabouts of citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has been pushing for a License Plate Privacy Act that would limit law enforcement’s ability to retain and use the information.

The too-smart city [Courtney Humphries/Boston Globe]

(via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. I’m going to have to chime in on the side of pessimism. Better surveillance and analytics make incumbent power easier and more fun to wield. Increased fairness? That doesn’t sound like something that the ‘stakeholders’ would want to share with the little people…

  2. “Cities can easily lose leverage to private companies their citizens rely on, as the persistent battles of political leaders against telecom companies over price increases show.”

    What planet is the author on? Political leaders *protect* telecom pseudo-monopoly market positions in exchange for campaign cash – one need only look at Time Warner Cable’s stranglehold on the NC Legislature to understand that. The only argument over prices they have is how much they can get away with charging their citizens subjects. The sooner the cities lose leverage over the telecom industry and the more competition the telecoms face, the better.

    1. Seriously.  This.

      City governments do some epic protection rackets schemes.  

      I live in Boston, and holy shit does the city work hard to take its piece.  The taxi monopoly is disgusting.  The licensing laws are fucking insane.  You can find if people are in your pub dancing and you don’t have a dancing permit.  Seriously.  A fucking dancing permit.  Pubs have been known to simply kill music to try and get their patrons to stop dancing when they seen an inspector coming around.  Liquor and food licenses are chopped up into a dozen different styles all rationed and costing more than the next.  Police are paid overtime to ‘direct traffic’ for ‘safety reasons’ at $40+ an hour.  The list is endless.

      The only people with real extortion power of cities these days are, to some small extent unions.  You really can’t fuck with the police or firefighters unions, so they just coopt the hell out of them.

      What extortion power does someone writing some code have?  Almost none.  Contracts are generally written for years or decades so they can’t ‘crash’ the system by jacking the price up one year.  Even if they do, software is cheap.  Someone else will bid for it.

      Evil software corporations extorting poor defenseless cities is roughly the last thing on my list of concerns.  I am FAR FAR more worried about evil city government giving a software corporation a monopoly in exchange the same kind of bribes, I mean “campaign contributions”, and placing the mayor son into jobs, like what a normal old boring constructions company gets.

  3. In one pessimistic way, I see the privacy war as already lost, so I consider what the impacts of “zero privacy” are, and how to combat those.

    Examples are – when UKIP get into power in the UK, they might expel all “foreigners”.  Myself and family might get caught up in that.  Or, highly targeted marketing is beamed to me.  I can fight that by retaining common sense and my own mind.

    It’s not the only thought, and I think the privacy war should continue to be fought on all fronts, but I do think about illicit information gathering by, for example, private companies who own the telecoms networks all the data is transmitted on.

    In a world of zero privacy, to spoof the information accuracy, we’d need to come up with methods to spoof the data.

  4. I think it is safe to assume that those in power will always misapply technology. The only defence is their incompetence. 

  5. The fear isn’t just about extortion by evil software corporations (though this is very real – read a history of Westlaw), it’s also about how the transparency requirements so necessary to our government can be eliminated by copyright.

    The Ohio Supreme Court recently did exactly this.  Somebody requested tax maps for a county, including the database to create those maps.  The Court said that these are public records, which must be available to citizens under the state’s Public Records Act.  But the Court also said that because the private company, who got paid by tax dollars, has a copyright on its database, it is exempted from the Public Records Act.

    State ex rel. Gambill v. Opperman  Supreme Court of Ohio.March 7, 2013— N.E.2d —-2013 -Ohio- 761

    Goodbye, transparency.   Goodbye, democracy.

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