In May 2021, US Ignite released the Fostering Civic Trust guide to help municipal leaders balance the adoption of emerging technologies such as sensors, IoT devices and artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) with resident and visitor privacy and safety.
The guide propounds five major policy domains as key for fostering civic trust:
Over the last eight months, our proposed framework has helped our communities evaluate their smart city projects through the people and policy lens. Below we go through the most common privacy concerns communities express and four narrative traps that community leaders must avoid.
An Ecosystem of Civic Trust
Privacy concerns have been a consistent and a recurring theme in our work with a network of nearly 50 communities across the United States. The most common privacy concerns relate to:
- Accountability – Who should be accountable for breaches of responsibility and trust? How should accountability be ensured? What does accountability look like?
- Informed Consent: How will individuals be informed about how their information will be used and be provided with an option to deny collection or use of data?
- Limiting Collection and Retention: How can we ensure that only the specific information required to provide services is being collected and stored only for as long as it is needed?
- Third-Party Access: Who will monitor interactions with third parties and how will it be done? Will access to information be limited where possible, and will third parties be required to comply with privacy principles?
- Transparency: How can we ensure that the public knows what information is collected, how it is used, and who may have access?
- Equity: How can the data be collected and analyzed responsibly so that no one discriminates against or mistreats information from vulnerable populations in a biased manner to exploit or cause direct or indirect harm?
As we help smart communities navigate these privacy concerns, we have found that more often than not, smart communities and their partners fall for four common narrative traps:
(1) Data is an Asset: A 2017 Economist report, “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data,” touted data as the new oil. While we agree data is a valuable resource that can significantly improve outcomes, efficiencies, and quality of life, it is both an asset and a liability. On the negative side, it can be weaponized to gain social and political control if people choose to use it in an unethical or irresponsible manner. If anything, data is a liability as it can be weaponized to gain social and political control if not used ethically and responsibly. Smart Communities should remember that people – and not data – are their primary assets, and putting them at the forefront is paramount to the success of smart city projects.
(2) Privacy and Security is a Zero-Sum Game: Surveillance tech thrived after 9/11 as people were willing to give up more of their personal information to prevent a future terrorist attack. Since then, the call for individuals to surrender privacy rights for the promise of safety has created a pervasive narrative that continues to be presented out of context to make a case for surveillance tech. Security cannot and should not come at the cost of privacy. In fact, with appropriate judicial oversight and justification, security combined with privacy can lead to significant social gains for the whole community.
(3) No Personal Data Equals No Privacy Harm: Communities often become complacent and believe that when technologies collect anonymized data, no or negligible privacy harms occur. They fail to realize that pieces of anonymous and seemingly innocuous data can be put together to reveal sensitive information about an individual or a group of individuals. As such, any technology that collects data on human subjects and makes decisions that affect human subjects must be thoroughly scrutinized and evaluated.
(4) It’s a Tech Race: Market forces propel smart communities to adopt technologies that pose acute privacy and surveillance implications. Communities begin to believe that smart city tech adoption is a race to the finish line, and if they don’t move quickly, they will be left out. Although it’s true that this is a race, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Spending the time and resources upfront to engage the community in smart city efforts will lead to sustainable economic growth and a better quality of life for all constituents.
These traps distort our understanding of how privacy works. Privacy is not only about doing the right thing; it’s also about doing it right. The relentless pursuit of smart city projects without due consideration to the community’s needs will only result in ephemeral success. A myopic attitude towards smart city efforts will likely create more problems than it solves. At US Ignite, we continue to solidify our commitment towards empowering our communities to preserve privacy and respect civil liberties as they undertake smart city projects.