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.

Public Networks and Privacy

I’ve been investigating smart city applications and one of the features that many smart network vendors are touting is expanded public safety networks that can provide cameras and other monitoring devices for police, making it easier to monitor neighborhoods and solve crimes. This seems like something most police departments have on their wish list, because cameras are 24/7 and can see things that people are never likely to witness.

The question I ask today is if this what America wants? There are a few examples of cities with ubiquitous video surveillance like London, but is that kind of surveillance going to work in the US?

I think we’ve gotten our first clue from Seattle. The City installed a WiFi mesh network using Aruba wireless equipment in 2013 with a $3.6 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The initial vision for the network was that it would be a valuable tool to provide security in the major port in Seattle as well as provide communications for first responders during emergencies. At the time of installation the city intended to also make the surveillance capabilities available to numerous departments within the City, not just to the police.

But when the antennas, like the one shown with this blog, went up in downtown Seattle in 2013, a number of groups began questioning the city about their surveillance policies and the proposed use of these devices. Various groups including the ACLU voiced concerns that the network would be able to track cellphones, laptops and other devices that have MAC addresses. This could allow the City to gather information on anybody moving in downtown or the Port and might allow the City to do things like identify and track protesters, monitor who enters and leaves downtown buildings, track the movement of homeless people who have cellphones, etc.

Privacy groups and the ACLU complained to the City that the network effectively was a suspicionless surveillance system that monitors the general population and is a major violation of various constitutional rights. The instant and loud protests about the network caught City officials by surprise and by the end of 2013 they deactivated the network until they developed a surveillance policy. The city never denied that the system could monitor the kinds of things that citizens were wary of. That surveillance policy never materialized, and the City recently hired a vendor to dismantle the network and salvage any usable parts for use elsewhere in the City.

I can think of other public outcries that have led to discontinuance of public monitoring systems, particularly speed camera networks that catch and ticket speeders. Numerous communities tried that idea and scrapped it after massive citizen outrage. New York City installed a downtown WiFi network a few years ago that was to include security cameras and other monitoring devices. From what I read they’ve never yet activated the security features, probably for similar reasons. A web search shows that other cities like Chicago have implemented a network similar to Seattle’s and have not gotten the negative public reaction.

The Seattle debacle leads to the question of what is reasonable surveillance. The developers of smart city solutions today are promoting the same kinds of features contained in the Seattle network, plus new ones. Technology has advanced since 2013 and newer systems are promising to include the first generation of facial recognition software and also the ability to identify people by their walking gait. These new monitoring devices won’t just track people with cellphones and can identify and track everybody.

I think there is probably a disconnect between what smart city vendors are developing and what the public wants out of their city government. I would think that most citizens are in favor of smart city solutions like smart traffic systems that would eliminate driving backups, such as changing the timing of lights to get people through town as efficiently as possible.

But I wonder how many people really want their City to identify and track them every time they go within reach of one of City monitors. The information gathered by such monitors can be incredibly personal. It identifies where somebody is including a time stamp. The worry is not just that a City might misuse such personal information, but IT security guys I’ve talked to believe that many Municipal IT networks are susceptible to hacking.

In the vendors defense they are promoting features that already function well. Surveillance cameras and other associated monitors are tried and true technologies that work. Some of the newer features like facial recognition are cutting edge, but surveillance  systems installed today can likely be upgraded with software changes as the technology gets better.

I know I would be uncomfortable if my city installed this kind of surveillance system. I don’t go downtown except go to restaurants or bars, but what I do is private and is not the city’s business. Unfortunately, I suspect that city officials all over the country will get enamored by the claims from smart city vendors and will be tempted to install these kinds of systems. I just hope that there is enough public discussion of city plans so that the public understands what their city is planning. I’m sure there are cities where the public will support this technology, but plenty of others where citizens will hate the idea. Just because we have the technical capabilities to monitor everybody doesn’t mean we ought to.