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As smart city technology advances, community groups warn of privacy concerns

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Posted at 2:17 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 16:17:55-05

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Streetlights are becoming as smart as our cell phones, monitoring everything from available parking to weather conditions. Cities and countries around the world are embracing these smart city technologies.

But capable of collecting massive amounts of data, some worry the technology could harm the people it’s supposed to help.

“We serve primarily the refugee community, but also the Muslim, South Asian, Black immigrant community here in San Diego. And our communities historically have been affected by over-surveillance, especially after September 11," said Homayra Yusufi, with the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA).

Her organization became alarmed after learning about the City of San Diego's Smart Streetlights program.

“They were not only installed, thousands throughout San Diego, they had also given exclusive access to the police department, and the police department did not have a use policy for how they were utilizing this," said Yusufi.

The smart streetlights are equipped with LED bulbs, cameras, and sensors that are capable of monitoring air quality and optimizing traffic and parking. The city partnered with GE, approving the $30 million program in 2016. City officials estimated the program would eventually pay for itself through energy cost-savings.

But unbeknownst to the public, the program evolved into a crime-solving tool for law enforcement. And instead of cost-savings, the city ultimately admitted it was plagued with cost overruns.

“There’s a real fear of these kinds of things, of being targeted, of being constantly watched outside their homes and going to the grocery store," said Yusufi.

Over 30 community organizations formed the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego (TRUST SD) Coalition are calling for more oversight and transparency.

“Our coalition is not about saying no to technology. Our coalition is about making sure there’s a democratic process for guiding our technologies," said Lilly Irani, a professor of communication at UC San Diego. “The LED lights make us feel like we don’t need to be paying attention, but there’s actually a whole bunch of capabilities built into this infrastructure.”

The program is now on hold as the city develops new policies with input from organizations, privacy advocates, technology experts, and other stakeholders.

“The real focus is not on the hardware, the streetlight, or the autonomous vehicle. It's about the data that it creates," said Philip Bane, managing director of the Smart Cities Council.

A global organization, they work to help cities navigate and implement smart technologies.

“We guide cities through a process. We ask them to identify stakeholders. We ask them to identify needs," said Bane. "We ask them, do you have a problem with energy consumption? Do you have a problem with carbon emissions? Do you have a problem with crime at night? We go through a list of city needs, and that's really where you have to start."

Billions of dollars are being invested around the world in smart city technologies.

“Nashville is doing something where they're putting in sensors to measure water flow, and when it’s flowing, in all these places it could be dangerous," said Bane.

Prone to urban flooding, the city is installing thousands of sensors for early warning detection.

“And the title of their project, and this is really key, is Mitigating Urban Flooding from Vulnerable Populations. That's the piece I want to concentrate on because that's the future. The future is getting the data and being able to act on how does that flooding affects somebody who's disabled or who's an immigrant doesn't speak English," said Bane.

He says the smart technology movement dates back decades when the country digitized the electric grid.

“Today, a utility will tell you your electricity is out before you pick up the phone to tell them that is a result of the technology that essentially has what we call a sensor. That sensor is located somewhere on a network. That sensor collects data," said Bane. "It's not that you collect data. It's that you act on the data."

He says smart city technologies can help solve many of the problems cities face, like poverty, traffic, public safety, energy, and water quality.

But for a program to succeed, he says they must bring all stakeholders to the table. Among them are community members, nonprofits, universities, technology experts, privacy advocates, city departments, and utilities.

Cities must also identify how they're going to use the technology and set rules for how the data will be shared.

"You may not have everybody at the table, you may not know every use for the technology, but if you figure out the rules for sharing the data, you’ll solve the first and second problem," said Bane. "And that's really the future of smart cities, is how do we share data."