The PJ Tatler

Your City Will Be Spying on You Soon Enough

Cities are becoming digital big brothers.

The Wall Street Journal reports in an op-ed by Mike Weston that cities and municipalities are pledging millions of dollars for “smart cities” or urban “areas covered with Internet-connected devices that control citywide systems, such as transit, and collect data.”

Data collections mean big money and big surveillance.

“If the Internet age has taught us anything, it’s that where there is information, there is money to be made. With so much personal information available and countless ways to use it, businesses and authorities will be faced with a number of ethical questions,” writes Weston.

And here is the scary part:

In a fully “smart” city, every movement an individual makes can be tracked. The data will reveal where she works, how she commutes, her shopping habits, places she visits and her proximity to other people. You could argue that this sort of tracking already exists via various apps and on social-media platforms, or is held by public-transport companies and e-commerce sites. The difference is that with a smart city this data will be centralized and easy to access. Given the value of this data, it’s conceivable that municipalities or private businesses that pay to create a smart city will seek to recoup their expenses by selling it.

Aside from the macabre issue of being surveilled 24/7, should companies be able to use data about your life and lifestyle with no compensation to you in order to make money? Should you tax dollars be used to pay for the equipment to do so? It seems to me like a free focus group for companies to market crap to you but without the stipend.

Weston says, “Private companies could know more about people than they know about themselves.”

As someone who works in polling and predictive analytics, I assure you that with the right data points companies can predict all kinds of things about you that can be used to market things to you, whether they are good for you or not.  Ever check and see what Amazon.com has selected for you based on your purchasing patterns? It’s like that only much worse.

Weston raised several question about our new surveillance overlords. “What degree of targeting is too specific and violates privacy? Should businesses limit the types of goods or services they offer to certain individuals? Is it ethical for data—on an employee’s eating habits, for instance—to be sold to employers or to insurance companies to help them assess claims? Do individuals own their own personal data once it enters the smart-city system?”

Weston worries that “large-scale misuse of personal data could provoke a consumer backlash that could cripple a company’s reputation and lead to monster lawsuits. An additional problem is that businesses won’t know which individuals might welcome the convenience of targeted advertising and which will find it creepy—although data science could solve this equation eventually by predicting where each individual’s privacy line is.”

And he is right on this point. But I’m not optimistic that business or governments that sell information to businesses will behave ethically of their own volition. Soon enough, we will find out the consequences of the expansion of the surveillance state, both in the court and in the inevitable congressional hearings.