Can privacy policies evolve with Smart City technology? A test case in Kansas City

shutterstock_102820823_600x310Smart cities are key to easing the effects of rapid urbanization worldwide and the number of smart cities is expected to quadruple from 21 in 2013 to at least 88 by 2025.

But as smart cities integrate information and communication technology (ICT) solutions to reduce traffic, lower carbon emissions and increase urban efficiencies, they are gathering large data sets that bring fresh policy and privacy challenges.

The Smart Cities/Urban Living Lab and Data Privacy project at University of Missouri-Kansas City is delving into these challenges as it studies the relationship between technology, privacy law and public policy.

The project will develop a platform to help provide guidance on data handling governance in Kansas City, which is a good test case with its free public WiFi, smart streetlights and sensors, interactive kiosks and Google ‘Fiberhoods’.

RELATED: Why New York was awarded Best Smart City 2016

ITU News spoke to two professors and a technology fellow involved with the project to get some thoughts on how to protect citizens’ privacy in this new era.

This is a project that “essentially concerns the extent to which data infrastructures used in smart city scenarios comply with data protection and privacy laws,” explained John Cummins, Fellow at Queen Mary University of London.

“One of the things that happens, I think, is that technology is evolving so quickly, there hasn’t been a lot of time for smart city initiative cases to go through the legal system and get decided. So actually, part of what we’re trying to do is not have laws and policies be reactive to the technology developments, but instead evolve with or even ahead of the technology” explained Anthony Luppino, professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Collaborative effort

How do we achieve that? Taking a collaborative approach is necessary, according to Jeannette Eicks, professor at Vermont Law School.

“What we want to do is create a connection so that it is more direct between … people in government who are creating these privacy policies and the device itself,” said Eicks.

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This could mean creating a robust and nimble oversight group so that people in technology, government and the local communities are all involved in the oversight mechanisms to try to keep pace with new developments in technology.

“We are in the process of sitting down with folks from the city and with the vendors, and tracking exactly what kind of information is being picked up, where it is being stored and who can access it,” said Luppino. “We think that making sure that there are seats at the table for everybody who should be involved to try to have the law and the policies evolve hand-in-hand with the deployment of the technology. We think that’s the smart thing to do, but it’s a challenge.”

Devices integrating privacy

But how can we ensure that policy keeps up with this rapidly evolving technology?

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“The policymaker is removed from the governing of what is happening on the sensor and it goes through several loops of technology along the way to set these policies,” said Eicks. “It would be a wonderful thing if the policymaker, when they changed and set their policy, would actually implement it in the device … so this city sensing device behaves in line with whatever the privacy policy has laid out.”

Shifting values

As more devices go online and with more data available than ever before, we need to start thinking differently about how we handle privacy, says Cummins.

“We are at a tipping point … where the value of privacy is going to be expressed in a much more precise way, and that’s a cultural change,” noted Cummins. “Underpinning all of this is … our cultures are getting used to articulating how much privacy they want, the type of privacy that they want – and all of this drives the policies.”

Lucy Spencer (@L_M_Spencer)

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