Privacy Risks in Smart Cities – What You Need to Know

Smart buildings in a Smart City
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Privacy Risks in Smart Cities - A Quick Guide

Smart cities use big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to automize many processes within a city and make them more efficient. However, the huge amounts of data these cities collect and process pose serious privacy risks.

These include, among others, the following:

  • Facial recognition can be used to track innocent civilians.
  • Smart meters give unprecedented information about households and their appliances.
  • Smart devices could (accidentally) spy on people in their own homes.
  • Self-driving cars need to collect and share a lot of data on our exact location and “transport habits.”
  • Smart transportation systems can track passengers’ movements.
  • Social credit systems can serve to shame people and make their lives unnecessarily difficult, even because of minor violations.

To protect yourself, you might want to consider using a VPN. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic so anyone listening in won’t know what you’re searching for.

If you want to learn more about smart cities and read about the privacy risks in more detail, check out our article down below.

According to the United Nations, by 2050, two-thirds of the world population will live in urban cities. If projections are to be believed, we’re talking about over 6 billion people. To organize and manage this increase in population, many countries are investing in technology to make cities smarter.

Smart cities are equipped with modern technologies like cameras with facial recognition or sensors that measure crowd density in busy areas. They also contain motion sensors and lights with ambient sensors to save on electricity.

Many of the technologies implemented in smart cities are designed to make our lives easier. Just think about sensors that locate empty parking spots and help you park your car, for instance.

However, smart cities rely on collecting huge amounts of data to work well. Today, major metropolitan hubs like London and Singapore already use smart technology.

This gives rise to some serious privacy concerns, which we will discuss in this article. But first, we will explain what smart cities are and how they affect our daily lives, including some examples.


What Are Smart Cities?

Smart cities rely on data, information, and communication technology (ICT) to govern many processes within modern cities and to make things easier for their inhabitants. These technologies are also used to distribute resources efficiently and effectively (such as electricity and water) and in general, aim to make life for city dwellers better.

Examples include garbage cans with sensors, letting those in charge (sometimes robots) know when they need to be emptied or traffic lights that change the way they operate depending on traffic.

Examples of cities that include plenty of smart city technologies include Singapore, Dubai, and Barcelona. Singapore, for instance, implements systems that can tell when people are smoking in illegal areas or when people are littering. Barcelona on the other hand has sensors in garbage cans communicating with self-operating garbage trucks.

There are several key characteristics that determine just how “smart” a city really is:

  • A technology-centric infrastructure
  • Effective resource planning using technology
  • Environmental plans and initiatives
  • A functional, resource-efficient public transportation system
  • Progressive city planning based on data

Key Elements That Make a City Smart

Since the concept of smart cities can feel a bit abstract, we’ll give you some more examples of the possible applications in our lives down below.

Smart homes

Smart home iconSmart homes aren’t necessarily located in smart cities and are more of a home-owner initiative than a city initiative. Even so, they work quite similarly to smart cities in that they also rely on connected smart devices and data collection. For instance, many people have smart light switches at home they can control from their smartphones.

Another example is the use of a smart thermostat to regulate temperature. It can often be controlled using your phone and is also frequently used in conjunction with motion sensors. These register when someone is inside (and when the house is empty) so the smart thermostat can change the temperature accordingly.

Smart cities often use street lights that use motion sensors and can be controlled remotely. Whenever a person walks by, the lights automatically turn on. More importantly, since these are smart lights, it’s much easier to track when the bulbs need replacing.

Smart transport

Smart transportation iconOther common applications of smart technology relate to the regulation of traffic in busy areas. This includes smart traffic lights which know how much time to give cars and pedestrians to cross to optimize the city transport flow and avoid traffic congestion.

It also includes apps that help people find parking spaces to avoid them endlessly driving around looking for one. This happens in Barcelona and is a great way to avoid car jams.

Smart energy

Smart energy iconAs cities grow larger and larger, it becomes more important and challenging to responsibly govern energy usage. Smart electricity meters and smart electricity grids are vital tools to do so.

Just think of cities with a lot of street lights in an area with only occasional pedestrians late at night. Surely they’d save a lot of energy by turning them on, through a sensor, only when they are actually people walking or driving.

Speaking more globally, the EU actually launched a smart energy initiative back in 2006. Their aspiration is a future with a lot of smart meters, which will provide very specific data on energy usage.

They hope this will make consumers  “more aware” of their energy usage and change their energy consumption for the better.

Smart buildings

Smart buildings iconAn increasing number of smart cities now feature smart buildings. These are buildings that use smart technology that automatically regulate the amenities of said building.

Examples include motion sensors that control lighting in different areas, such as bathrooms, and security cameras with facial recognition to give people access to certain areas. This technology can even be used to give people access to certain areas, based on their user ID. In fact, smart coffee machines can even use gathered data to prepare your coffee just the way you like it!


Major Privacy Risks in Smart Cities

Smart cities definitely offer plenty of advantages, as far as crime reduction, the environment, convenience, and many other factors go. However, there are some privacy risks we need to be aware of. After all, such cities rely on the data that they gather from their citizens. Many experts have voiced a few privacy concerns, that we’ve discussed below.

1. Cameras (with facial recognition)

Technologies that rely on facial recognition can serve society in several ways. Just think of the ability they provide to solve crime cases far more easily or even prevent crime. After all, if people know these advanced cameras are keeping an eye on them and have likely already stored their face in some database, the idea of committing a crime becomes a lot less appealing.

However, what about the 99 percent of the population that doesn’t have crime on their mind? Is it justifiable that their every move, depending on the number of cameras, becomes known to the government? Is this a case of the goal justifying the means and the breach of the public’s privacy?

We also have to remember governments can actually abuse this technology knowingly. For instance, many have criticized China for using smart cameras to repress an ethnic minority that predominantly lives in the North West of the country (the Uighurs).

Smart cameras were and are still being used to monitor the spread of this ethnic group throughout the country. This also opens up disturbing possibilities of governments using facial recognition to track political dissidents or journalists or other individuals they generally don’t agree with.

2. Smart energy

Some experts have voiced privacy concerns regarding smart meters. The reason is that these meters register a lot of data about a household’s energy consumption which is shared with not just energy suppliers, but also third parties that are involved in the upstream supply line.

An independent research organization focused on privacy and freedom, EPIC, has identified 14 ways in which they believe smart energy can compromise our privacy. Some of the more shocking privacy risks include real-time surveillance and determining personal behavior patterns, including even the number of appliances in use!

3. Smart devices or even smarter spies?

Arguably, a smart city is nothing without smart homes, and a smart home is nothing without smart digital or virtual assistants. These are necessary to operate our smart appliances, such as light switches, central heating, and others.

According to research firm Canalys, about 300 million smart speakers will have been installed worldwide by the end of 2022. Smart speakers carry lots of privacy risks.

In many homes and buildings, these speakers are virtually always on, because of our heavy reliance on them. Furthermore, they are connected to your other smart devices, and to your WiFi network.

In other words, depending on the speaker you use, if an outsider gets access to your WiFi network, he could also get access to your smart speaker and the juicy conversations it picks up. Need we say more to worry you?

Fortunately, many well-known smart speaker brands support great data encryption nowadays. Also, it’s not difficult at all to encrypt traffic from your home network, for instance with a VPN.

Still, though, privacy issues, even those involving high-end and well-known smart speakers are not unheard of.

In 2018, for instance, a woman from Portland had a conversation with her husband recorded and sent out to one of her contacts, by a faulty smart speaker. If you want to keep your data private, using a VPN is a fantastic idea. One of the best VPNs right now is NordVPN.

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4. Advanced communication technologies

Many smart cities and “smart countries” have already deployed strong 5G networks or are in the process of doing so. Thanks to their fast transmission times and low latency, these networks are perfect for connecting with devices on the go and providing more accurate information about how people interact with them.

What does the above mean for your privacy? Sharing your exact whereabouts and daily mobility habits with the IoT might put your privacy at risk.

We assume that those in charge of these systems will implement strong encryption protocols to guarantee data security as much as possible. Even so, it will arguably be a challenge to prevent those with access to our data from abusing it.

5. Smart public transportation

Smart public transportation is one of the defining features of smart cities. Users can simply download a mobile app to top up credit and use the NFC chip from their phone to travel more conveniently.

Smart public transportation is generally used to track traffic patterns and determine whether the city needs to make more resources, such as trains or buses available or not.

However, this also means that all your movements are tracked, from the point you get on to where you get off. Again, this creates the same privacy risks as those discussed above.

6. Social credit system and implications

China has been quite notorious the last few years for its gradual implementation of the social credit system. In a way, the privacy implications of this system show us a glimpse of what happens when smart cities and even “smart countries” become oppressive.

The social credit system entails a rating for the behavior of people and businesses, based on recorded (minor) violations of rules. Often, this system relies on other smart technologies such as cameras with facial recognition.

It’s been claimed that China has publicly displayed the names and information of “social credit offenders.” Examples include displaying people’s personal details at crossroads if they cross a traffic light. We probably don’t need to explain why this is a privacy issue.

Since 2018, China has even been tinkering with the idea of making people’s and businesses’ credit scores publicly available. This just goes to show what could happen in a future horror scenario in which everything about people is recorded and people (or the government) stop valuing personal privacy.


Big Data And The Internet of Things

Internet of things iconSmart cities rely on two main elements: big data and Internet and Communication Technology (ICT), which is gathered using the Internet of Things (IoT). The latter is an umbrella term for all physical devices which are connected to the internet and can share information (data) among them.

Examples of these devices are smartphones, computers, smartwatches, printers, webcams, smart speakers, sensors, modern cameras, and virtually anything else that you can connect to the internet.

These devices can record and share data and/or do something with this data. As such, they are paramount in any smart city. The second element is big data, which is simply the enormous amount of information that the Internet of Things collects about us through sensors, cameras, and other devices and, thanks to modern ICT, can send out.


Managing Ethical Concerns in Smart Cities Is Important

Ethical scale iconAs discussed above, smart cities offer a plethora of advantages. But they also pose a series of privacy concerns. Whether we allow privacy concerns to compete with the convenience and safety of smart cities comes down to ethics. Pragmatism and efficiency are more important than ever as the world moves towards a smarter future.

As such, does this leave any space at all for moral considerations? As an example, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, it’s not unthinkable that future generations of Europeans and Americans will train facial recognition cameras to recognize minorities that are more associated with acts of terrorism.

Is this justifiable under the pretext that the safety of many is more important than the privacy of a few? And, does it create a prejudice towards such minorities?

Similarly, is it okay that energy suppliers and their affiliates gather unprecedented amounts of information on our behavior thanks to smart meters? After all, some would argue the environment is more important than privacy concerns.

Or should we allow smart devices to register our behavior like China is doing? Because who says fair dealing and safety in society don’t trump privacy? These are some of the serious ethical questions to think about when smart cities are concerned.

Privacy in Smart Cities - Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have a specific question about smart cities and the privacy risks they present? Check out our FAQ down below. If you don’t see your question, feel free to leave us a comment. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

A smart city relies on collecting lots of data and sharing this data between different devices (the Internet of Things) to automize many processes and make these more efficient. Examples include automated waste collection, relying on sensors in trash cans, using sensors to measure how busy traffic is in a certain area, and using traffic lights accordingly.

Smart cities can make citizens’ lives safer and more convenient. They can also reduce the negative impact they have on the environment and improve sustainability. Some specific examples of their advantages include the following:

  • Decrease crime by using facial recognition cameras to solve and prevent cases
  • Make consumers more aware of their energy use by using smart energy meters
  • Save energy using smart light switches and motion sensors in (public) buildings
  • Prevent traffic jams using smart traffic lights and apps that show you where to park
  • Automate waste collection

The privacy risks that smart cities present have everything to do with the enormous amount of (personal) data they collect and share (big data). Facial recognition cameras, for instance, don’t just create databases of criminals’ faces, but can do so for every single face they come across. Similarly, smart meters, smart cars, and smart devices gather unprecedented amounts of data about (almost) every facet of our lives.

The many privacy risks of smart cities include:

  • The abuse of facial recognition cameras to follow innocent civilians and ethnic minorities
  • The possibility of real-time surveillance of our households thanks to smart meters
  • Smart devices that accidentally record and share our personal information or conversations
Tech journalist
Nathan is an internationally trained journalist and has a special interest in the prevention of cybercrime, especially where vulnerable groups are concerned. For VPNoverview.com he conducts research in the field of cybersecurity, internet censorship, and online privacy. He also contributed to developing our rigorous VPN testing and reviewing procedures using evidence-based best practices.