Are we prepared to allow artificial intelligence gain increasing knowledge of our personal data, and ultimately obtain control over all aspects of our daily lives for the sake of making life easier through technological advances? We are living in a day and age where more voices are heard demanding further control and greater protection over how our data is collected and placed into use.
Today’s cities run on huge infrastructures including thousands of kilometers of roads, pipes and wires beneath our feet and inside the walls around us, all providing access to vital water, electricity, the ability to transport and other resources considered crucial for our daily lives. A city simply cannot function without these imperative necessities.
Today, in the increasingly connected urban world we live in, access to information and one’s ability to use such an asset has become as essential as the abovementioned physical infrastructure. Data is the key to making “smart cities” possible. A community that is able to provide valuable experiences for all its residents and visitors, is fully efficient and progressively intelligent. Improving safety and life quality is only made possible today by permitting access to data for public services. 21st century city life is only defined and made realistic through real-time interactions, and anything else would simply be considered outdated and unacceptable.
There are smart cities emerging as we speak and they are successful in varying degrees by using different methods for their objectives. Can you imagine a city where trash bins are wired with sensors to measure how full they are? Barcelona has already achieved this, allowing municipality garbage trucks to be much more efficient and lower their fuel consumption rates. Such a valuable public benefit is also made possible at no breach of an individual’s privacy. Yet there are controversial examples that are raising eyebrows and sounding off alarms due to their controversial nature. One such case involves the city of Baltimore where authorities have employed an aerial monitoring program aimed at combatting crime. This campaign, however, has faced a major outbreak of anger after the public learned the entire project was carried out in secret.
Use data or protect it?
Like it or not organizations from the public and private sectors are engaged in a race to gather as much data as possible and place it at their leverage. Why? To find new and more creative methods to compete in today’s digital environment. Such a reality has resulted in increasing tension across our society. Can “smart cities”–and the officials from all walks of life who make them a reality–successfully balance between the very tempting desire to collect more and more personal data, and the respect they are morally obligated to show for the matters of public privacy and security, and also the sake of sovereignty?
Here lies before any entity a completely systematic challenge as they continue to deal with sensitive personal data. Of course, the very concept of “personal data” remains far from being precisely defined. As we allow technology gain a larger role in our daily lives, and are becoming growingly more dependent on its convenience and the instant services we enjoy thanks to such technology, a growing number of voices are being heard demanding more control and protection on how personal data in general is gathered and later used.
Policymakers are beginning to listen. As new laws are crafted in parallel to more powerful protective measures, there are unexpected challenges facing such efforts. The Data Protection Directive in the European Union is designed to regulate how personal data is protected. This includes the right of an individual to be “forgotten.” While this may seem simple at a first glance, such an odd right has also become a very difficult subject to actually define, let alone enforce in practice. When the wide dissemination of information has become a major reality, you cannot simply “delete” anything and make it disappear automatically.
Not so easy
The objective of protecting personal data is not as it easy it may sound. This concept raises new alarming questions and challenges on issues involving data management. This has to be considered from a variety of standpoints:
- Privacy is considered a mainly personal and social policy subject. Users are increasingly nervous about how to guarantee their data is only shared after their permission. Should a user be obliged to place his/her personal data at the disposal of today’s digital world simply they are participating in it?
- Security is essentially an issue more related to the enterprise sector of our society, involving businesses and governments in general. Who defines the standards these entities must meet to ensure their users’ data is absolutely protected from any threats? How should citizens expect public institutions protect them from any form of abuse, attack and fraud?
- Sovereignty is an issue involving an entire nation, making it utterly sensitive, unpredictable and difficult to manage. What pledges should citizens expect from lawmakers to guarantee other countries will not make deals with their government and demand their data?
All this leads us to an all important question that must be answered: How does one use and protect data simultaneously?
In comes a new perspective
This is made even more difficult for “smart cities”, meaning gaining the right balance despite the inadequate nature of existing laws and regulations. It is common knowledge that technology is always ahead of the law, by as much as decades. This has been a challenge in many different strides humanity has made in modern history. Roads were built long before anyone thought of stop light regulations. Today, one is not permitted to record a person’s voice without their authorization. However, it remains legal (with some respect to certain circumstances) to capture video footage of that same individual. The reason is simple. Audio technology was made long before visual technology, and laws have defined its regulations. This also explains why reporters get away with using hidden cameras in taping footage from suspects for exclusive reports. While visual recording technology has been available to the entire public for decades, lawmakers continue to face certain difficulties in defining the rules involved.
The challenge of providing adequate protection for citizens, information and users is on the shoulders of both public and private sectors. New perspectives are definitely needed in this regard. With all their expertise, lawmakers and technologists cannot solve this challenge on their own. A true spirit of collaborative work is needed in combination with a set of multiple capabilities, all carried out under the watchful eyes of passionate leaders who seek the best for their society. There is correct logic behind the rise in the number of chief privacy officers being hired in the private sector. A growing urgency is witnessed in the issues of privacy, security and sovereignty, and the demand for top executive work will continue to escalate.
The smart governance and protection of data is a must to establish smart cities of the future. Despite the various approaches to be adopted by different cities and entities, we must act now to define the laws and regulations of this highly sensitive subject.