Smart Cities and the Future of Democracy

IoT smart city diagram

Cities around the globe are moving to make their infrastructure “smart”. Initiatives range from traffic lights controlled by artificial intelligence, to similar initiatives for urban cyclists, to monitoring environmental conditions through ubiquitous sensors. While many aspects of city life could be improved through additional technology and infrastructure investment, the push to collect data on such a massive scale presents a number of privacy problems, and potential threats to democracy.

Take the new digital kiosks installed last year in the downtown Business Improvement District of Washington, DC. Not only will the kiosks be connected to arrays of sensors gathering environmental data, but the data collected through the system can be easily combined with other publicly available data sets to create an unprecedented view of that region of the city.  The kiosks are expected to generate revenue through digital ad sales, as well. Soon, it might not be possible for an individual to stroll down a city street without these ubiquitous sensors registering their presence.

With a smart city, there is no possible way for a citizen to opt-out of the data collection, except to leave the city. This fact has alarmed some individuals, but plans continue to increase the number of smart cities in the US and elsewhere. The new rise of big data has also set off alarm bells for researchers who study institutional inequality and systemic racism. In one recent book called “Weapons of Math Destruction”, the author argues that inequality will be increased through the use of algorithms being applied to decision-making across all spheres of life. The output of an algorithm is only as good as its input – meaning that machines are inadvertently trained to be biased.

Numerous articles have been written about the threat posed to the First Amendment by mass digital surveillance by the government, and the potential privacy problems posed by third-party data collection. The United Nations considers the right to privacy a fundamental human right. It’s not much of a stretch to consider that the IoT revolution and smart cities could threaten democracy, by producing a chilling effect on the right to assemble. Just as people’s lives have been transformed by the digital revolution, we can only expect a similar transformation as IoT becomes truly ubiquitous. Can we have a reasonable expectation that we can freely and anonymously assemble in the future? Let’s hope so, and hope that municipalities follow privacy-enhancing guidelines for smart cities that are both efficient and democratic.