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my privacy

As Ireland's smart cities develop, a government report warns of data security needs

How much of our data are we willing to compromise for an easier life and a more efficient city?

AS TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES, we gain greater knowledge of the world we live in – but it also learns a lot about us.

Advancements in technology mean that citizens have access to much more information than ever before, but also put their own data at risk by engaging online.

The importance of people’s personal data has become almost a political issue – with worries that tech companies will sell people’s personal data to corporations in order to create more effective advertisements.

(It’s important to note that if you get promotional emails from a business without subscribing or ticking a box signing up to the service, then you have the right to report it to the Data Commissioner.)

So as we integrate personalised systems into day-to-day life and update all of our public services, will our data be compromised as a result?

Smart cities, smarter security

shutterstock_103032482 Shutterstock / Patryk Kosmider Shutterstock / Patryk Kosmider / Patryk Kosmider

In a report published by the government entitled ‘Getting smarter about smart cities: Improving data privacy and data security’, the integration of these services is analysed, as well as the implications it would have on individuals’ privacy.

When we talk about ‘smart cities’ and the ‘Internet of Things’, what is meant is lots of machines all connected and sharing information with each other.

Some examples of smart city technologies being used in urban areas are centralised control rooms, urban dashboards, integrated travel ticketing, bike share schemes, real-time passenger information displays, smart energy grids, controllable lighting, smart meters, sensor networks, building management systems, and an array of smartphone apps and sharing economy platforms.

All of these technologies generate huge quantities of data, much of them in real-time and at a highly granular scale.

Although it may not seem like personal data is used in these systems, there is huge potential for it in the future. Just this week, Google Pay was introduced for Android users, meaning your smartphone can effectively be used like a contactless credit card.

The government’s report acknowledges the potential dangers as well, saying that “many smart city technologies capture personally identifiable information and household level data about citizens – their characteristics, their location and movements, and their activities – link these data together to produce new derived data, and use them to create profiles of people and places and to make decisions about them”.

As such, there are concerns about what a smart city means for people’s privacy and what privacy harms might arise from the sharing, analysis and misuse of urban big data.

In addition, there are questions as to how secure smart city technologies and the data they generate are from hacking and theft and what the implications of a data breach are for citizens.

“While successful cyberattacks on cities are still relatively rare, it is clear that smart city technologies raise a number of cybersecurity concerns that require attention.”

The frequency of such attacks would most certainly rise if more systems were to be put in place (government websites crashed earlier this year because of an attempted attack).

But the report also emphasises the usefulness of having an integrated system:

“These data about cities and their citizens can be put to many good uses and, if shared, for uses beyond the system and purposes for which they were generated.”

Collectively, these data create the evidence base to run cities more efficiently, productively, sustainably, transparently and fairly.

shutterstock_281262263 Shutterstock / Olesia Bilkei Shutterstock / Olesia Bilkei / Olesia Bilkei

The Minister for Data Protection Dara Murphy said on the subject:

“A number of our cities have adopted smart city strategies that seek to improve city services, foster economic development, and engage citizens.

With the adoption by our cities of an approach to data privacy and security that best serves the interests of citizens, we will be able to fully harness the use of new technologies for the greater good.”

Professor Lilian Edwards from the Centre for Internet Law and Policy at the University of Strathclyde said that “smart cities represent both a hopeful future for humanity but also a set of severe challenges to values such as privacy and human rights”.

Policymakers and regulators as well as industry must think about these issues right now if we are not to build 24/7 surveillance machines to live in.

Professor Rob Kitchin from Maynooth University and the author of the report said a key question is how to gain the promise of smart cities while minimising its potential perils:

“A key finding of my report for the Government Data Forum is that the solution is not just technical, but also requires policy, governance and management responses. By being proactive, Irish cities can protect individual privacy and curb cybersecurity threats.”

Although the data security seems obvious as a right that is to be protected, it’s often something that people are willing to give up when signing up to a service or updating software.

This is because of the confusion over terms and conditions when an ‘update your device’s software’ notice appears, and also a disinterest in what is done with data.

This is shown through how much we share on Facebook, how we’re shocked at Google’s personalised adverts, and how little it changes our behaviour in what we share online.

So with smarter cities on the horizon the question now is – how much of our data are we willing to compromise before we draw the line?

Read: You can now pay for things using your phone (but only if it’s an Android)

Read: Eir only became aware of potential security breach after reading about it online

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