Should privacy be a default in tomorrow’s smart cities?

There's more to smart cities than its futuristic landscape embedded with the latest technology trends.
26 December 2019

Developers of smart cities should have privacy in mind. Source: Shutterstock

We often visualize smart cities as harmonious and seamless connectivity between citizens and their infrastructure with the use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, activators, and technology.

The UN predicts close to 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050. Entering the third decade of our century, the smart cities of tomorrow are advancing sooner, with the industry set to peak up to US$400 billion next year. 

With an influx of citizens moving to cities, urbanization is accelerated across the globe and many nations are looking to adopt the concept of smart cities to coincide with this ‘urban’ migration. 

One of the main features of a smart city is the deployment of sensors and activators to gather data and contribute to development plans. 

As an example, sensors embedded in traffic lights capture traffic patterns and enables traffic management to be more effective, including reducing congestion and detecting areas in need of maintenance, minimizing the chances of road accidents. 

Even though the streams of data are powering smart cities, the lack of transparency in data storage, usage, and distribution raises some questions about the direction smart cities are developing towards.

Leading experts of the industry, such as Leo Lin, Chief Innovation Officer of PlatON, shared the concept of “developing smart cities with data protection in mind” in an exclusive interview with TechHQ

Laying the foundation with privacy

With 20 years of cross-industry experience in telecommunication, IoT, and digital security, Lin noted the growing awareness and consciousness of data privacy and security among communities as an important aspect to consider in the development of smart cities. 

“For smart cities, you need big data and massive data collection practices. And consumers trust has continued to progress across countries and industries from advertising, marketing to financial service and even social media, so we saw a report that shares 50 percent of consumers feel that their personal data is vulnerable and they believe companies do not have customer’s best interest in mind. 

“So we think those standards can be applied to the wider trend of [data] awareness among citizens and data protection rights. So, this is a problem one should be solving as well as how to manage people’s concerns surrounding data privacy,” Lin explained. 

A smart city that prioritizes its citizen’s data privacy and security is in the right frame, but the implementation of a system that promotes such trust and transparency is not without challenges. 

Firstly, the technologies of smart cities may not be fool-proof when it comes to data breaches. Therefore, privacy by design should be part of the foundation of tomorrow’s smart cities. 

In other words, the technology should be able to properly anonymize data and reduce the overconnectivity of data, thus, lowering the risk of data breaches

“The second challenge is security—how to ensure the security of devices. Besides data privacy, there are also many risks for security problems; smart cities, for example, rely on a robust network and that could be supporting the connectivity of integrated services and interconnected devices. So, knowing how to build up a secured network is very critical for smart cities,” said Lin. 

One of the ways tech companies and developers are solving this problem is by creating a global privacy-preserving computing architecture that ensures data exchange can be safe and efficient. 

People must come first in smart cities and that means placing its inhabitant’s data privacy and protection at the top of the list. 

On this note, Lin shared the idea that when smart cities are designed with privacy in mind, data shared in safe and secure ways can encourage collaboration across institutions such as government bodies, public sectors, and local businesses. 

“We believe data can be shared but it should not be shared at the expense of people’s privacy. Data should be shared with privacy-preserving and then data can be securely shared for collaborative use if the data is properly encrypted.”