The data economy of the modern age, part 2.
Many of us have heard the term ‘smart cities’ but are unsure just what it actually means.The idea may well conjure up a futuristic vision not far off The Jetsons or Star Trek — flying cars, happy families using travelator-style sidewalks, office doors unlocking with the touch of a fingertip, or paying for a new dress by facial scan rather than reaching for your wallet.
Whilst some of those images definitely still belong in an imaginary narrative for the future, the introduction of ‘smart cities’ really will tangibly change the way we live.As defined by Wikipedia, ‘Smart cities’ use data and technology to create efficiencies, improve sustainability, create economic development, and enhance quality of life factors for people living and working in the city.
How nice. Now look at that definition again. Smart cities use data.
But whose data? And how?Yours; collected via centralised services.
Meaning the information from every service you use, every payment you make, every bus ride you take, every building you visit, and more, is stored and collated.
Do you feel a bit sick thinking about that? If you value your privacy, you should.“Smart cities will 1984 the world if they’re not constructed on the right technological backbone,” says Sylo Co-Founder Ben Jordan.
“But there’s no doubt that smart cities are coming.”Just a month ago, a privacy expert quit from a Google-backed smart city project over concerns that her recommendations were being deliberately ignored.Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who was working with Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, told The Telegraph that she resigned over concerns that the “treasure trove” of data collected in the $40m smart city project could not only identify individuals but leave them open to cyber attacks.
The chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of both Google and Sidewalk Labs, Eric Schmidt, said the project was “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.” Alphabet insisted it needed “full autonomy from city regulations so it can build without constraint” and use Sidewalk Toronto as a testbed for new technologies that will monitor and measure urban activity on an unprecedented scale.
Shocking as it is, it’s proof that where it pertains to technology, the privacy of individuals continues to be ignored by the major [centralised] players.This Sidewalk project in particular has been steeped in controversy since inception, with former Blackberry chief executive Jim Balsillie recently calling it “a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism.”
But the project doesn’t stand alone — it’s the issue. Wherever you’ve got mass data collection, as for smart city establishment, you’ll find the same ethical quandary.
To help make sense of it for the layman, Ben compares it to Facebook.
“If you consider that Facebook already has the ability to build a fairly comprehensive profile of who you are through the interactions you’re building online; a smart city will be able to build a far more accurate comprehensive profile of you as an individual, based on the things you interact with in real life.”
“In the same way that Facebook has become a monolithic sh*t-fight for data, there’s a chance that smart cities could become just as bad but for everything.”
Again and again, the scramble for your personal data, our collective information — why?
To quote Sylo’s Co-Founder Dorian Johannink in part 1 of this series — Because “you’re not the customer — you’re the product.”
But the issue is black and white, then it’s grey… Though exploitation of your data is a very real side effect, smart cities, in theory can bring great benefits.
The group represents the latest and largest effort by Torontonians to start having the kinds of public conversations, teach-ins, and debates that should have “taken place last year, when this project was first announced,” according to Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and one of the lead organizers of the opposition to Sidewalk Toronto.
“There are huge opportunities in creating seamless customer experiences,” says Ben, “and by setting up city infrastructure to allow people to seamlessly connect with any business at any time, you need all of those businesses and people to be operating on an inter-connected platform.”
“At present now, we have a choice over how this interconnected platform works. This platform can either become another Facebook or another Google owned by a single entity, with data as the true source of value; or it can become a platform owned by many, on equal terms, where value is exchanged in line with the value that’s actually being provided.”
Well that sounds great ’n’ all, but how do we accomplish that?
“The only way this can happen is if we build this new infrastructure on decentralised technologies and allow businesses within cities to collaborate in meaningful ways.”
“My view of a smart city is one where technology best enables user experiences that we probably haven’t even thought of yet.”
“It’s about interconnecting a whole different range of services on a common technology backend and allowing new payment experiences, new shopping experiences, and new transport experiences to make city living better.”
“It’s not about creating ‘City.inc’ — it’s about allowing localised businesses to provide value directly to the people that live and do business in those centres.”
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