Do we really need Smart Cities?

Written by Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director with Joe Cadillic, MassPrivatel Blog

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Do we really need Smart Cities?

Even before the COVID0-19 crisis, the world seemed to be marching forward without much citizen input towards ‘smart city solutions’ for all the problems that ail our municipalities. The point is to gather as much information on how citizens use everything the city owns and operates. This includes how citizens move in the city—especially in a vehicle. The city (and private companies) gather the information from traffic cams at intersections and street light poles. 

Sounds great—gathering all this big data and crunching numbers to see if resources are put in the right place or where the potholes need to be fixed. In reality—this is Big Brother personified. Something gathering data in the shadows of our every move. Scary and we don’t seem to have much input into the process. Elected officials and bureaucrats seem to decide for the rest of us that this is what we want, but if we understood the implications and how much money this takes, we probably wouldn’t want this ultimately.  

Let’s be clear—smart cities are street surveillance at its apex. Whether private companies or governments coordinate smart devices, it doesn’t matter—it is still surveillance. Just because we know how to do 

Toronto recently experimented with a 12-acre project called Quayside. Google’s Sidewalk Labs worked for two and a half years plus $50 million to make it a go. Definitely, some local opposition to the project and now it’s done. What did the taxpayers get for it—not much really except inspiration for Google to innovate even more? Be prepared—Sidewalk Labs might be coming to your city next. 

Shelia: Much has been written about smart cities recently, but most of us don’t even know what a smart city entails. So, what are they, and why are they instrumental as the next stage for the street surveillance future?

Joe: Smart Cities are billed as the wave of the future where everything you do can be accessed through AI. But that is a double-edged sword.

The CIA’s “Signature School” is a major player in pushing smart cities across the globe.

Below is a brief list of the ways smart cities use AI and technology to monitor motorists.

  • “Smart” Street lights collect all kinds of personal data from your Bluetooth address to your license plate and your cell phone’s IP and MAC address. Smart street lights could also be used to track if you are social distancing.
  • Smart street lights can also listen to the public’s conversations using ShotSpotter microphones.
  • Smart cities could utilize digital IDs that would be able to provide interoperable access to public and private services through a unified delivery mechanism. This would include things like income verification for an affordable house, parcel delivery, and transit payment. Toronto’s now-defunct Sidewalk Labs was working towards having citizens register for a (private company) authorized digital ID.

With the spread of COVID-19, I would not be surprised if they are also planning on using smart streetlights for contact-tracing.

An AI company called Viziblezone also wants pedestrians to allow vehicles to track their movements in real-time as part of a safety measure for driverless and connected cars.

Shelia: All these elements seem quite piecemeal. With the closure of Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, is there any other city that is close to becoming a “smart city?”

Joe: Yes, in fact, there are at least 50 cities worldwide that have become smart cities, and America has at least 12 functioning smart cities.

Shelia: Why does a city and/or private company need all this data on citizens?  Ultimately, how can cities afford this data inundation when they have trouble making a budget to fix streets that people actually need to use?

Joe: That is an interesting question. Cities do not need to keep tons of data on the traveling public, but they can make a profit from it. Cities and towns have been privatizing almost everything, and with the pandemic, we can expect to see an even greater push to privatize public data. Corporations sell our metadata to data brokers who, in turn, sell it to other corporations and the Feds. Selling driver’s license data and license plate reader data are two good examples. Private people can now also buy license plate information for $20.00.

For states, it is a win-win scenario. They are collecting tons of information on motorists’ daily travels, which corporations can use and resell. As I mentioned earlier, don’t be surprised to see politicians trying to profit from contact-tracing metadata for things like doctors’ visits or traveling to the pharmacy.

If there is one takeaway from this article, it would be, Smart Cities use “smart devices to track everything. When in doubt, look it up.

Here is my list of 38 smart devices that track everything.

Here are other the top 10 stories from the past several weeks regarding street surveillance:

Joe also has posted the following surveillance pieces recently at his MassPrivatel Blog.

If you would like to keep track of the many issues currently involved in street surveillance, check out Joe’s blog called MassPrivatel. Also, take a daily peek at the NMA’s Driving News Feed or subscribe to Driving News Daily, a five times per week email.

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