Smart Cities and Surveillance

One of the linchpins is most proposals to provide smart city technology is the deployment of surveillance cameras. This is usually sold to cities as a way to improve security and to give police a leg up before responding to 911 calls.

A case in point is the city of Oakland. Oakland, along with other major US ports received a grant to install security cameras in the port in an attempt to step up national security after 9/11. But the City Council decided to take this concept farther and voted to expand the port security system to cover the entire city and its 400,000 residents. The City justified the system because, in addition to providing video that might help to solve crimes, the system came with other bells and whistles like a gunshot detector that could pin down the origin location for gunshots.

But the camera systems in the City went beyond just providing crime-fighting tools. For instance, the system purchased by the City included software that could read and record vehicle license plates and included first-generation facial recognition software. In 2014 the City removed the surveillance system everywhere outside the port after a huge outcry from citizens about being watched by the City.

More recently in May, Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google Alphabet, scrapped plans to build the city of the future on 800 acres along Lake Ontario in Toronto. Sidewalk Labs had proposed a smart city where sensors would be embedded everywhere in the new city. They envisioned a smart city made life easier by melting snow from sidewalks, automatically deploying awnings to block the summer sun, and making sure that traffic always flows without interruption. Sidewalk Labs envisioned a horde of robots using underground streets that would deliver packages and remove trash. The public pushed back against the idea because they feared that Google would track everything done by residents and would use that data to profile every aspect of the lives of people living in the new city.

More quietly, over 600 police departments have partnered with citizens that install Ring cameras at their homes. Citizens can register their Ring cameras with police departments which can use the cameras to see what’s happening on residential streets. In answering inquiries from Congress, Amazon admitted that the police were free to use video they collected through the Ring cameras in any way and could store and use the images forever.

Recently there are new concerns about surveillance as facial recognition software is maturing as a technology. The Boston City Council recently passed an ordinance that banned the use of facial recognition technology other than in limited personal-use cases such as allowing facial recognition as a tool for logging onto computers. The City Council worried that facial recognition is a massive invasion of privacy and a threat to civil liberties. Boston joined San Francisco, Oakland, and Cambridge, MA in banning the technology.

There is starting to be a lot of public pushback against facial recognition. Amazon recently announced that it would suspend police use of its facial recognition software. Microsoft made a similar pledge and said they won’t sell facial recognition technology to police departments until there is a federal law governing the use of the technology.

Not every City is against surveillance. Currently, 8 of the top 10 cities in the world with the most surveillance cameras are in China. In China, the country is rapidly migrating to a system where people can shop and pay for things using facial recognition technology – a person’s face is their credit card. Shoppers peer into a camera at check-out and are automatically charged for their purchases. The downside of the technology is that the State knows everywhere that people go, everywhere they shop, and everything they buy.

The other two cities with the most surveillance cameras are London and Atlanta. London began installing cameras years ago as a result of security fears concerning Northern Ireland. But the camera systems were greatly expanded after a few terrorist attacks in the city in recent years. Atlanta has installed a network of over 11,000 cameras that are used by the police department under the name of Operation Shield. The video surveillance system routinely identifies stolen cars by monitoring license plates. The City says that they curtail privacy abuses by limiting the ability of most police staff to use the system – but privacy advocates are not so sure. Interestingly, most of Atlanta’s network, estimated to cost $300 million, was privately funded.

Surveillance is a sticky topic and will likely become more so as more cities start using facial recognition software. My bet is that future deployment of smart city technology will depend upon where communities land on the surveillance issue.