Ethical Concerns in the Development of Smart Cities
April 5, 2021
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by Stephen Kanyi

Earlier last week Sidewalk Labs a subsidiary of Alphabet, parent company to Google, was forced to shut down its Toronto smart city project. The plan had been in development for over two years and was projected to cost just over a billion dollars. It however faced a lot of backlash from the community who objected to “the company’s high-tech, sensor-laden vision for the city’s waterfront.”

While the project was focused on the Quayside area in Toronto, leaked documents show that the company had much grander ambitions in mind. The vision was to make use of the best of big data technology, IoT and facial recognition to achieve a ‘truly smart’ city. These technologies are at the core of every smart city in development.

However, as the Toronto Quayside project shows, a lot of people have some serious concerns about the heavy use of such technologies, especially if they in any way infringe on their privacy.

The cities of the future will be designed with data at their core. Data will be central in providing urban services such as energy, housing, connectivity and transportation. Collecting such data will be a hefty and somewhat controversial affair. It will involve placing a lot of sensors and cameras to not only collect crucial information about statistics such as population density, temperature but also data on individuals. And herein lies the biggest issues: privacy.

Balancing a smart city’s appetite for data and people’s privacy is an issue that many city authorities are going to struggle with. In fact, some cities have already somewhat failed in this endeavour.

China’s Sharp Eyes

As part of its newly implemented social credit system, China uses advanced facial recognition software to identify criminals or those whose behavior is deemed ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘suspicious’. 

Termed as ‘Xue Liang’ which can loosely be translated as Sharp Eyes, the ambitious video surveillance system is planned to connect the whole nation’s surveillance and integrate it into one data sharing platform. 

While the system was first supposed to be only used to identify criminals, it is today integrated into the government’s Orwellian social credit system. Under this system, one is given an actual social credit score, much like one’s financial credit score, only this one is based on one’s behaviour. 

If you are found to be engaging in untrustworthy or suspicious activities, some points are deducted and the loss of certain privileges or other types of fines are applied in consequence.

Armed with an intrusive nationwide video surveillance system, which is also imbued with a state-of-the-art facial recognition software and AI, the government is able to identify criminals or anyone which they deem as offenders.

First conceptualised in 1999 by Lin Junyue, one of the most important minds behind the system, in 2014, the government decided to make the social credit system operational by 2020.

As it stands however the government missed its 2020 deadline. The project hit a few bumps. Various institutions both public and private, ended up with different systems so that integration of all of them at every level proved to be quite difficult. 

While cities like Shanghai and Beijing were successful in implementing their own systems, the project was much harder to implement at the municipal levels. These political units were just ill equipped to implement such a complex system. The integration of all these systems into a nationwide system was thus an impossible task under the timeframe. 

The country however has set up a dangerous precedent for other governments. While the system does have its perks in terms of curbing criminal activity, it comes at a cost, a pretty high one. It grants the government way too much power over its citizens. 

If such a government were say, to target a specific ethnic group for elimination, then such a powerful surveillance system would aid in one of the most ‘efficient’ genocide in human history. There would also be little room for dissent as the technology would be able to detect any actions deemed to be contrary to the government’s wishes. 

As we move forward in the creation of smart cities privacy is going to get harder to achieve. It is however still a central tenet of modern society and needs to be preserved even if a few projects have to be put on hold.

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