Smart cities cybersecurity privacy

Smart cities are already here. With a combination of sensors, data and algorithms, urban centers throughout the world are already optimizing how they function, with the aim of improving the lives of their inhabitants.

From traffic management to law enforcement, smart city technologies have the potential to change how we live and interact without cities, making cities more efficient, reducing resource consumption and much more.

Many major cities are in the relatively early stages of implementing these ideas, although a few proposals like Toronto’s Quayside development plan to build smart neighborhoods from the ground up. In the not too distant future, we can expect most modern cities to embrace these technologies on a large scale.

The push toward greater smart city integration seems inevitable. Companies are already using data in almost every facet of business that you can think of, so it’s only a matter of time before governments fully embrace the approach and apply these technologies in everyday aspects of urban life.

Despite the tremendous advantages that can come from smart city initiatives, there’s also a lot that we need to be cautious about. Major areas of concern include the vast amounts of data collected and its potential impact on the privacy of citizens, the possibility of this data being stolen by hackers, and adversaries taking advantage of this interconnected technology to launch attacks, grinding cities to a halt.

If we don’t plan these smart city initiatives carefully, our societies could face devastating repercussions, from mass disruption of services to life becoming an Orwellian nightmare like Xinjiang, where the people live in a culture of fear under China’s heavy hand.

What is a smart city?

The exact definition of a smart city is a little blurry due to the wide range of approaches and technologies that can be considered “smart.” In essence, they are cities that leverage IT to optimize their functions, especially when the process involves collecting information from various sources, analyzing this data with algorithms, and then using it to improve an array of different elements.

They aim to take advantage of the latest technological developments alongside their data insights, using the combined approach to improve the lives of citizens, boost productivity and efficiency, cut back on resource consumption, reduce costs, enhance adaptability and make services more convenient.

This data-focused approach offers societies a way to make the most of their current resources, services and infrastructure, enabling them to provide a high standard of living to inhabitants. These techniques will be important mechanisms for navigating the difficulties that are forecast to come from population booms and environmental pressures.

The following components are critical for smart cities to function effectively:

Data collection

In order to be smart, cities need information that they can use to make more effective decisions. They collect data from people, their phones, devices, sensors, cameras, RFID chips, smart meters and other relevant points.

Together, these various sensors allow cities to see what is happening in real-time, and also to accumulate historical data that can be used to make better judgments. All of this information is then used in later stages to make more accurate decisions. These data collection points work much like our own senses, registering information on the world around us and sending it onward so that we can act appropriately based on the latest developments.

Data communication

Smart cities also need to be connected, so that the information can flow to where it is needed. This is facilitated by the Internet of Things (IoT) and other networking technologies that allow for rapid communication between data-collecting devices, servers and points of action.

Data can be sent to central servers where decisions are made or can be sent on to other smart devices to influence their actions. These communication channels are akin to our nerves, directing information from where it is observed to where decisions can be made, and also conveying responses to where they need to go.

Data analysis and action

The various streams of data come together to give a more vivid picture of what is happening in a city. Real-time data can also be combined with historical data to help make more accurate decisions. The relevant information is taken into consideration by algorithms in order to decide on the appropriate action, although human operatives may be involved in certain processes.

This approach can be used to solve a range of different problems and enhance services, such as determining the optimal time for a traffic management system to turn a light green, or whether a streetlight should brighten as a person walks past.

Once a decision has been made based on the relevant data, the order travels to the point of action, and the appropriate change is made.

This whole process is what makes a city smart. In a dumb city, a traffic light may just turn green based on a timer, not taking local conditions into account and potentially making traffic jams worse.

By being able to see what is happening all over a city and integrating accurate, real-time information into its decision-making models, a smart city can act in ways that help to provide better services, boost efficiency, reduce costs and much more.

Continuing our human body analogy, the data analysis center is the brain, taking our sensory input and using our previous knowledge to make decisions regarding the best action to take in a given situation.

Just like when our brains tell us the perfect time to kick a soccer ball based on the input from our eyes, the smart city decision-making process can send out garbage trucks exactly when and where they are needed, skipping over empty trash cans to make the collection process more efficient.

Applications of smart city technology

Smart city tech can be used to solve a wide range of urban problems, or to simply make more effective use of the services we currently have. Many of its applications can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Transportation
  • Energy and resource management
  • Waste management and pollution monitoring
  • Public safety
  • Governance and services


As urban populations bulge, traffic jams and crammed public transport have become a regular part of life in major cities. Smart cities can help to alleviate these woes, leveraging their real-time data insights to figure out how to optimize the use of roads and services, as well as determining bottlenecks where new transport routes are needed to reduce congestion.

Data can be collected from cameras, automated license-plate readers, cars, smartphones and GPS systems of those in transit, street-based sensors, and even satellites or drones, giving traffic management systems a vivid picture of what is happening on roads and public transportation.

This information can be used in a variety of ways, such as warning motorists of potential traffic incidents and suggesting alternate routes, optimizing when traffic lights change, and even switching all lights to green for emergency service vehicles. App-based electric scooter and bike rental schemes are also important parts of improving transport services in smart cities.

Smart parking systems have already been introduced in a number of cities throughout the world. Instead of the tiring practice of driving in circles until a motorist finds a free space, they can use an application that connects to street-based sensors and lets them know where free parking is available. These systems also allow parking operators to charge according to demand, much like the surge pricing of ride-share companies like Uber.

In more extreme cases, governments may mandate monitoring systems that keep track of vehicles at all times. Not only could these systems be used to collect traffic information, analyze it and send updates to motorists, but they could also be used to enforce the law.

Such systems could automatically hand out fines when a car exceeds the speed limit for a certain period of time, makes an illegal maneuver, or commits a variety of other offenses. This could help to reduce the bad behavior that often makes traffic worse. It would also make the penalty systems more efficient and lower administration overheads, meaning that a greater percentage of the fine goes back into the public purse.

Together, these and other smart city transit ideas can make our transport systems much more efficient and provide more convenient services. Despite these benefits, the smart city approach can be taken to the extreme, enhancing transportation at a cost to privacy, or even resulting in systems that are advantageous to the rich and detrimental to the poor.

Energy and resource management

The smart city approach also has numerous applications in the fields of energy and resource management. Smart meters eliminate the need for meter reading, allow people to monitor their own energy use, and have been shown to reduce electricity consumption by five percent.

Smart cities can also install smart lighting that only activates when needed, or adjusts the brightness level according to conditions in order to save power.

Similarly, this technology can help to make the most of our water usage and reduce leaks during delivery. Smart water delivery systems could assess the water quality and make necessary adjustments, or even detect when infrastructure maintenance is needed. It can even be used in irrigation systems for parks, only watering plants as needed to prevent waste.

Waste management and pollution control

Along with transit issues, waste management can be one of the major sticking points when it comes to making our large urban centers more livable. The more people residing in a confined area, the more waste they produce.

Unless this is managed effectively, it can result in high pollution levels, dirt, and the accumulation of garbage. Not only are these unsightly, but they can also have significant health impacts on citizens.

Some of these issues can be alleviated through more effective public transport systems, as well as clean transit alternatives such as electric vehicles and cycling. Smart waste management and pollution control offer another way to minimize these problems.

Smart city solutions include internet-enabled trash cans that sense odors and garbage volume, alerting waste management services when the garbage needs to be picked up. Not only does this prevent trash buildup and stop cities from smelling bad, but it allows trucks to plan their routes around trash cans that need to be emptied, skipping others. This makes the process more efficient and cuts down on energy usage.

Pollution sensors that monitor the quality of air are another important smart city technology. They can alert the authorities of high smog levels, allowing them to take the appropriate actions. Cyclists and pedestrians can also use this information for insight into which parts of a city are most polluted at a given time. This allows them to plan their routes accordingly, avoiding the worst of the health-endangering smog.

Public safety

There are a wide range of technologies that can help to improve public safety. Many of them involve tracking and crime prediction, helping authorities to deter and prevent illegal activities, as well as making investigations easier. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Predictive policing software
  • Facial recognition technology
  • Smart street lights
  • CCTV and traffic cameras
  • Automated license plate readers
  • Gunshot monitors
  • Police body cameras

Smart city technology has tremendous potential in the field of public safety, however, many of these applications are also some of the most controversial. This is because many of the previously mentioned smart city approaches don’t actually need to collect individually identifiable information to work.

You can collect data about the number of people using a transport system, as well as when and where it is being used, without having to know who exactly is using it. In contrast, when it comes to crime prevention and investigation, the authorities generally want to know the identities of who is involved to help with investigations and arrests.

If crime detection systems are deployed throughout a city, they could take away the anonymity of urban life, which could have significant social costs.

Governance and services

Smart cities can offer their citizens better ways to interact with their governments and other essential services. These can include systems like e-governance that help citizens become involved in the decision-making process, platforms for accessing government programs such as welfare and community assistance, and hubs that offer a range of centralized and integrated services.

This approach can boost efficiency, exemplified by centralized digital identity programs that make identification and authorization easier. As it stands, many cities have a variety of disparate systems, accounts and cards that their citizens need to keep track of in order to go about their daily lives.

A more centralized system can reduce complexity and also streamline processes, allowing residents to pay for public transport and other services with their phones, log in to all government services with a single account and interact directly with the government through an application.

Smart city examples

Because the notion of a smart city is hazy, it’s hard to say exactly how many there are throughout the world. Should we consider a city smart because it uses red light cameras and traffic management? What if it uses data to monitor its water quality?

It’s probably best to view smart cities on a spectrum. Many cities are smart because they use some of these technologies in limited ways, but others have well-integrated systems that make the most of this approach, so you could think of them as even smarter.

Despite this blurred line, in 2018 Deloitte estimated more than one thousand smart city projects throughout the world, about half of which are in China. Other leading smart cities include Singapore, Dubai, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen.


Deemed the world’s most advanced smart city by the IMD World Competitiveness Center and the Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore gives us an idea of what many cities can expect in the coming years. While some may suspect a conflict of interest in the study (both entities are Singaporean), Singapore’s many smart city advancements truly make it a world leader in the space.

Singapore’s existing and planned smart city initiatives include:

  • A national digital identity program – This acts as a digital passport that can be used across a range of government and private services.
  • An integrated government services platform – A single online portal will help citizens with tasks ranging from enrolling their children in school to processing their taxes.
  • ePayment infrastructure – This allows citizens to pay for online services and public transport through their phones.
  • A national wireless sensor network – This network includes alarm buttons, drowning alerts as well as smart lamp posts that monitor everything from traffic conditions to weather.
  • Automated electricity meters.
  • Alert sensors for the elderly – These can send out alarms to emergency services if they fall or have other medical issues.
  • Dengue fever surveillance drones – These drones search for potential mosquito breeding grounds, alerting the authorities of locations that need to be sprayed.
  • Autonomous vehicles – Driverless buses are expected to be on public roads by 2022.
  • The MyResponder application – Allows health professionals to sign up to receive alerts when medical emergencies occur nearby, facilitating aid until an ambulance can arrive.
  • Extensive use of CCTV – Facial recognition systems are also being trialed.

Some may view various Singaporean smart city initiatives as invasive or authoritarian, particularly when it comes to surveillance. While this is certainly a legitimate point and more could be done to give citizens their privacy, the city’s integrated systems have also made Singapore an efficient, safe and convenient city.


Various Chinese cities are also becoming world leaders when it comes to integrating smart technology, however many of the country’s initiatives seem to focus on surveillance and keeping citizens under control.

According to our recent study, eight of the world’s top 10 most-surveilled cities are in China. Up to 626 million cameras are expected to be in use by 2020. When combined with the country’s advances in facial recognition technology, the privacy situation for its citizens is worrisome.

The city of Shenzhen operates a facial recognition system where jaywalkers are not only publicly shamed on LED screens, but they are also automatically fined. When combined with China’s social credit system that privileges citizens based on how well-behaved they are, the country’s embrace of smart city technology is alarming.

It wouldn’t be fair to only discuss the negatives of China’s smart city approach. These aspects have simply been emphasized because they are so pervasive.

Despite the numerous privacy issues, there are also a variety of smart city solutions throughout the country that are enhancing everyday life. These include Hangzhou’s City Brain, a traffic monitoring program that uses cameras and sensors to collect data, using the information to optimize how intersections are managed.

After taking control of 100 intersections, the system was able to reduce the time spent in traffic by 15 percent in a single year. The system can detect motor vehicle accidents almost instantly, and has also improved vehicle access for emergency services.

The city also has a data exchange platform that allows companies to buy data that the city has collected and use it to build tools or dashboards that will enhance city services.

Another smart city initiative is a collaboration with Huawei that helps residents find car parks. Parking spaces are embedded with IoT sensors, transmitting real-time data about whether or not they are occupied. Motorists can find a space by simply searching through an app and making a booking.

Sidewalk Toronto

Sidewalk Toronto is one of the world’s most advanced plans for developing a smart neighborhood. While it hasn’t been built yet, it’s worthwhile taking a look at the proposal to see what could be in store for us in the future.

Since the early 2000s, Toronto has been slowly redeveloping its waterfront as part of the aptly named Toronto Waterfront project. Quayside, an almost insignificant 12-acre sliver of the 2000 acre development, was set aside with something special in mind, and Toronto Waterfront held an open challenge for organizations to submit tenders on what they would do with the land.

In 2017, it was announced that Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, had been chosen, although the competition may not have been completely fair. The company proposed a sustainable and high-tech neighborhood based on many of the above-mentioned smart city initiatives.

When Sidewalk Labs released its Master Innovation Development Plan (MIDP), it included a range of different smart city features such as:

Despite initial excitement, the project has since attracted controversy and criticism, exemplified by the resignation of its privacy commissioner over a refusal to strip identifiers from data at the source, and a scathing review by Waterfront Toronto’s own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel.

The panel’s report slammed the project over privacy issues such as how the neighborhood would collect, manage, share and store data. The report stated that Sidewalk Labs’ proposal to form an Urban Data Trust to oversee data management between several parties may not be legally viable, nor would it have appropriate privacy oversights, in addition to other issues.

The report also found that the proposal’s plans were “frustratingly abstract”, with “little detail present on how” a number of different innovations would be designed or implemented. It also stressed that the proposal didn’t place the potential residents at the center of the design process, despite initial promises to do so.

The proposal’s data policy was also criticized by the former chairman and co-CEO of Blackberry, Jim Balsillie.

“Our policy community was asleep on it, then they gave away the keys prospectively for a vendor to design the data governance, for God’s sake, without any interplay with politicians and their citizens,” he said.

Sidewalk Labs and the various other stakeholders need to take care of a range of issues by the end of October 2019 so that the development can move forward. At time of writing, the project’s future has not been decided.

Although the Toronto Quayside project is still up in the air, it’s a good example of the many complications involved in designing smart cities, emphasizing just how important it is to involve citizens in the plans. After all, they are the people that have to live there, the ones that will have to cope with any negative consequences that may come from smart city initiatives.

Smart city security risks

We have already discussed the many benefits and improvements that smart city technologies can bring to the lives of urban dwellers. These come alongside various risks and challenges. One of the most prominent issues is security, especially system failures resulting from either attacks or malfunction, as well as large-scale data breaches.

System attacks and failures

Smart cities generally combine several aspects that also make them vulnerable. They tend to involve centralization, integration and are connected to the internet. Online access often gives windows of opportunity to attackers, which can make it possible for them to access these vital systems. Centralization and integration open up the potential for them to do massive amounts of damage.

In earlier times, when systems were mainly offline and infrastructure like power grids were more localized, it was essentially impossible to cause mass destruction without an invasion or widespread violence.

Sure, it may have been possible for adversaries to infiltrate a power plant and sabotage it, but people tend to notice when shady individuals are loitering outside vital infrastructure, making such tactics more difficult. Similarly, the lack of centralization made it harder to coordinate attacks that would cause widespread chaos.

As we move toward smart city integration, more and more of our vital infrastructure and services are potentially being opened up to attack. What’s more worrisome is that the perpetrators don’t even have to be in the same hemisphere.

While these attacks could come from sophisticated criminal gangs, the biggest threat is from nation-state funded groups that want to grind vital services to a halt or cause economic disruptions.

Some of the best real-life examples haven’t targeted high-tech cities, but they are still good references that we can extrapolate from. In 2015 a Russian-linked cyber attack cut off power to 230,000 Ukrainians for up to six hours, and an attack attributed to Iran disrupted electricity to 40 million Turkish people.

Both of these attacks affected major infrastructure, shutting off power to critical components of the cities, from hospitals to traffic lights. Not only did the disruptions inconvenience people, but they caused economic damage and may have even resulted in deaths.

If you are thinking that these sound like problems that only developing-world countries face, keep in mind Russia has been probing the US power grid for weaknesses. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it’s not something we need to worry about.

Attacks on smart systems have also caused train delays in Sweden, could have tainted drinking water and have the potential to do much worse.

Listing these past attacks isn’t an attempt to dissuade the world from adopting smart city technology. Instead, it’s to emphasize just how important cybersecurity is in any smart city development. If we build a smart world without securing it, we could end up suffering attacks that lead to chaos.

Data breaches

By their nature, smart cities involve the harvesting, analysis and storage of immense amounts of data that may relate to individuals. From a person’s location throughout the day to all of their personal data stored on a government platform, this information can be immensely valuable and sensitive.

The most extreme visions of a smart city could end up involving the surveillance of almost every interaction, building up detailed profiles of those being monitored. If this data is ever stolen or is leaked through incompetence, it poses an immense threat to those involved.

If a person’s location data is exposed, it could reveal everything about their schedule. Thieves could use the information to rob their home while they are away, stalkers could follow their every move and sexual predators could do the unthinkable.

Leaked data could also be used for identity theft or to drain a victim’s bank account. Given the amount of data that may be collected in a smart city, there are countless ways to take advantage of it and harm those affected. This is why cybersecurity considerations are so important whenever these systems are being planned.

Why do smart cities pose risks to privacy?

We have just discussed the privacy risks that can result from data falling into the wrong hands, but what can happen when data is right where it’s supposed to be, pushed through the collector’s algorithms and stored on databases? Smart cities have the potential to collect immense volumes of data on their systems, data that could be used in insidious ways.

First, it’s important to talk about where that data may end up. It could be under the control of the government, or it could even be in the hands of a private company. This is because many smart city initiatives are often conducted as public-private partnerships, or they are launched by wholly private companies.

What happens next can’t be said definitively, because we are still in the Wild West days of data privacy law, and in many countries there aren’t satisfactory regulatory frameworks that state:

  • What type of data can be collected.
  • When data can be collected.
  • Under what conditions data can be collected.
  • What the collected data can be used for.
  • How individuals can access their data
  • How individuals can opt out of data collection.
  • Whether the data needs to be anonymized.
  • How data should be stored.
  • How long data should be stored for.
  • How data should be deleted when it is no longer required.

Of course, there are huge variations according to country and culture, but in many cases, we end up with situations where either companies or the government have obscene amounts of data and a very long leash to do whatever they want with it. This could have huge ramifications for our privacy, as well as how we go about our daily lives in a smart city.

Unless we reign in our smart cities, they could very much turn into surveillance states.

Why should you worry about privacy in the first place?

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply declare that these technological innovations have the potential to cause massive infringements on our privacy and that we need to navigate them carefully.

In a world where politicians and paternalistic pundits often repeat the tired old adage of, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you should have nothing to hide,” we have to talk about why privacy is such an important part of society and our lives.

This line of thought bounces around the public consciousness and has become a belief shared by many, making it important to unpack just why this saying is mistaken.

Privacy is a necessary part of life, because moments without outside influence or the fear of being watched are critical for our personal development. It’s in these freeing times that we recognize ourselves as individuals with the ability to make choices, have preferences and live our lives according to our own views. By giving us the freedom to explore our own identity, privacy grants us autonomy, independence and integrity.

If you spent your whole life constantly under surveillance, would you have ever meddled on the borders of respectability? Whether right or wrong, acts like teenage rebellion, going against the wishes of our parents and defying authority figures can be important for our personal development and key events that contribute to who we are in the present day.

Our mistakes shape us just as much as our successes, and if a surveillance society discourages people from this experimentation, would it also be depriving them of an opportunity to learn and grow?

Another major reason we need privacy is that certain sensitive information could be used against us unfairly if it became public. To turn our famous phrase on its head, it’s not that you may have done something wrong, it’s others doing something wrong that you need to worry about.

Data collection or surveillance: Where’s the line?

No reasonable person would dispute that collecting and analyzing data is incredibly useful when it comes to optimizing a city’s services. Without data, how would officials figure out the best route for a new train line? By putting on a blindfold and dragging a pen across the map?

We need to be collecting data in order to make our cities more convenient and efficient. The problem is that we can become obsessed with collecting data, to the point that we forget about how it may impact the privacy and the lives of the people that live in a city.

If this is taken to the extreme, we could end up living in a surveillance state with cameras watching our every move, our DNA kept on file and vast data profiles of our web activity keenly examined by government software and operatives.

If everything is recorded and scrutinized, it can lead to power asymmetry between the people and their government. If the government knows everything about the people, while the people know little about their government due to lack of transparency, it can leverage its power of information to make people act according to its desires.

In this way, surveillance becomes a tool of oppression. People fear the government’s omniscience and act within narrow lines out of fear, perhaps limiting their political activism and not uttering their true opinions.

The end result can be the suppression of opposition parties and an end to democracy, a chilling effect on individual freedom and choice, and the paranoia that comes from living in a culture of fear.

One of the best contemporary examples of this is in Xinjiang province, where the Chinese Communist party is using smart city surveillance techniques to suppress the Muslim population.

The pervasive surveillance mechanisms include widespread CCTV use – even inside people’s homes and mosques, tracking through facial recognition technology, collection of DNA and other biometric data, as well as the IJOP app, which is used by police to track people and record vast quantities of data about them.

The databases include criminal records, drug use history, whether individuals have mental illnesses and whether they have previously made complaints to the government. Police are even investigating people over completely mundane concerns, such as if a household has used an unusual amount of electricity, if an individual has taken a long holiday, or if they use VPNs or encrypted messaging like WhatsApp.

This invasive surveillance process has also led to large numbers of people being held in internment camps, with estimates ranging from 120 thousand to millions. Some of them have been sent there for transgressions as minute as wearing a shirt with a Muslim crescent or owning a book on Uighur culture.

In Xinjiang, many of the technologies that are frequently associated with smart cities have been used to create a surveillance state, where the people can no longer practice their religion openly or assert the individual freedoms that we take for granted.

While this is an extreme example, it’s important for highlighting the potential abuses that can occur if we don’t tread carefully as we move toward smart cities that record massive amounts of data.

Feature creep

You might think that fears of a surveillance state or a totalitarian new era are overblown – after all, reasonable people would put a stop to it once a smart city crosses the line, wouldn’t they? But where’s the line?

These systems don’t occur overnight, and instead, they are built piece-by-piece, often relying on sinister techniques such as instilling fear or turning citizens against each other. We have already seen our privacy slowly chipped away at in this slow, step-by-step manner in what is known as feature creep.

Travel back in time fifteen or twenty years and convince your past self to have your location monitored at all times by companies with shady privacy records, or tell the old you that they should let a tech giant know about your sexual orientation, political persuasion and drug use. It’s going to take some pretty good salesmanship to convince your past self.

In the present day, even the most stubborn of us have handed over much of this information, bit-by-bit, in exchange for convenience and more effective services. It never seemed like we were giving away a lot at the time, but when you zoom out far enough, we have lost a significant amount of privacy since the early 2000s, and a tremendous amount more when we compare the current day to earlier eras.

If we aren’t careful, this process of feature creep is likely to take us to an extreme that no one would want, where we have slowly given up too much of our privacy and liberty. With the slow progression of feature creep, we don’t even notice that we crossed the line long ago.

Data centralization

Another major risk we have to be wary of is data centralization. On its own, it may not matter if there are recordings of your license plate downtown at 8:45pm on Friday, that you took a train two stops last New Years, or the amount of time that you spent logged in to a government platform. However, if thousands of points of data are collected on you each day, it starts to paint a vivid picture of who you are and what you do.

If data is centralized without de-identification, it could be used to figure out a person’s schedule, who they associate with and much more. If the portrait is vivid enough, it could also be matched up with anonymized data of individuals, showing that the two data sets actually represent the same person. This can lead to the identification of previously anonymized data.

Once more, we have to be careful of how we collect, analyze and store data to protect people from possible negative consequences. This involves the separation of different data streams unless absolutely necessary, proper encryption, and disposing of data as soon as it is no longer needed for its original purpose.

There’s no way to opt out

When it comes to major privacy invaders like Facebook, you can at least choose not to use them. You may face social consequences, struggle to log in to certain services and still be tracked somewhat, but there is a choice, albeit a difficult one.

With data collection in smart cities, the only choice a resident has is to leave. They can’t opt out of being seen by security cameras, having their travels recorded on public transport, and using a mandatory smart meter that monitors their electricity use.

As it stands, in many cases there are no reasonable options for those who want to maintain a private life, or worry that such heavy data collection could end up affecting them negatively.

Lack of regulatory framework

Governments have been slow to react in our age of mass data collection and algorithmic wizardry, which means that most countries don’t have adequate legislation to protect their citizens from the potential negative consequences associated with smart cities.

In many situations, companies or the governments themselves can collect data on whatever they want, however, they want and use it in any way that pleases them, with limited thought going toward how it affects those being monitored.

If we want to handle the transition to smart cities smoothly and without infringing on the lives of citizens, then regulators need to thoroughly examine the current situation, where it is likely to head, the technologies in use and any potential harm that these approaches could inflict on people.

Only after such in-depth thought can they come up with an appropriate legal framework that gives citizens the benefits of living in a smart city without the threat of massive privacy violations and cyber attacks.

How to mitigate the risks of smart cities

The move toward smart cities is seemingly inevitable, especially if we want to be able to effectively manage the burgeoning populations of our cities. Under this assumption, we shouldn’t fight the idea of smart cities themselves but advocate for carefully designed smart cities that have all of the necessary protections in place to safeguard their citizens.

These include:

  • Citizen consultation
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Anonymity and privacy measures
  • Appropriate cyber defenses
  • Regulation

Citizen consultation

Whenever new smart city initiatives are proposed, planning should be done alongside those who will be living in the area and dealing with any potential consequences. This could be done through online submission processes, public forums, and by appointing impartial review bodies that scrutinize privacy and security aspects of proposals.

Planners need to accept and take on any relevant feedback, criticisms or enhancements, and be willing to respond to or implement them if they include reasonable measures.

Together, all stakeholders should consider key aspects of a proposal such as:

  • What is it?
  • How will it benefit the city?
  • What types of technology are involved?
  • Who will it affect?
  • Will it involve data collection? What type?
  • How can data collection and privacy invasions be minimized?
  • What security mechanisms will be in place?
  • Are the benefits worth any potential negative consequences?

It’s important to never lose sight of the fact that smart cities are designed to help improve the lives of the people that live within them. If they aren’t consulted or a part of the process, not only will they feel disaffected, but the initiatives may not actually line up to their real-life needs.


Smart cities also need to be open about their data collection and use. A transparent system will make people more confident and comfortable with using it, while an opaque system may breed fear, whether warranted or not.

People should be informed of:

  • When and where data is collected, and under what circumstances.
  • What type of data is collected.
  • How data is processed and what it is used for.
  • If data is shared with any other parties and under what circumstances.
  • How long data is kept for and how it is erased.
  • How they can access the data that has been collected on them.
  • How they can opt-out (when reasonable).
  • What privacy and security measures are in place.

Anonymity and privacy measures

Each smart city initiative should be implemented with the aim of maximizing the privacy of citizens while still providing an effective solution. Where possible, initiatives should:

  • Only collect data when absolutely necessary.
  • Collect the minimal amount of data to reasonably accomplish the goal.
  • Avoid collecting identifying information unless necessary.
  • Anonymize data at the source where possible.
  • Only use data for its stated purpose and nothing else.
  • Avoid sharing data with other parties unless absolutely necessary.
  • Avoid combining data from multiple streams.

The reality is that for many of the advantages that come from smart cities, we don’t actually require that much invasive data. If a city is trying to optimize its public transport system, knowing the number of people as well as when and where they get on and off would be important information.

However, the city doesn’t need to know the identities of all of those individuals, nor their addresses, mothers’ maiden names or cats’ birthdays. Simply treating commuters as numbers should be the only necessary data to improve the system in most cases.

Things get more complicated when we talk about law enforcement applications of smart city technology. In many cases, individually identifiable information may be helpful for preventing crime or catching those responsible.

We need to consider each situation carefully and weigh up the benefits to public safety, versus the costs to individual privacy. It probably makes sense to have cameras in high-risk locations like subway stations, but do we really need facial recognition technology that could track each person’s movements throughout the day?

There are no easy answers in these scenarios, so it is important to consider the unique context of a given situation and listen to the perspectives of both law enforcement and privacy advocates in order to come up with the right balance.


Cybersecurity considerations are crucial because of the centralized and integrated systems involved in smart cities, as well as the colossal amounts of data collected. Due to the immense complexity of securing systems at this scale, the defense mechanisms need to be considered from the initial planning stages, rather than tacked on as an afterthought.

Despite the challenge, it should be possible to operate smart cities with minimal risks as long as the right cybersecurity policies and technical measures are in place.


Accountability is another core aspect of having a functional smart city. Let’s be realistic – even with the best intentions, things in life often go wrong. When people or entities act with ulterior motives, the results can be far worse.

Because so much is at stake in smart city systems, a robust process needs to be in place to ensure that transgressors are held accountable for their actions. Not only would this punish those for their misbehavior, but it would disincentivize others from taking similar actions that compromise the systems, and also serve as a way to collect compensation for victims.


Each of the above criteria should be codified in a regulatory framework that aims to facilitate the emergence of smart city technologies without compromising the security and privacy of residents. Due to the rapid pace of technological development, these laws may need to be technology-agnostic like the American HIPAA regulations.

This means that the laws don’t necessarily say the exact mode of protection required, instead they insist that organizations implement reasonable and appropriate safeguards for a given situation.

While this subjectivity may seem like a dangerous path to head down, it seems to work quite well, as the significant fines encourage organizations to err on the safe side. The alternative of listing specific technical safeguards that should be implemented is dangerous because the slow process of lawmaking will result in quickly outdated recommendations.

Smart cities for everyone

With the right attitude and careful consideration, it’s possible to have smart cities that offer improved services and quality of life, without major risks to privacy or security. As long as the well-being of citizens and the above-mentioned criteria are taken into account at every stage, life in our smart cities doesn’t have to end up looking like it came out of the pages of a dystopian novel.