Incognito – April 2022: Do Smart Cities Compromise Citizen Privacy?

April 1, 2022
Incognito – April 2022: Do Smart Cities Compromise Citizen Privacy?
April 1, 2022

Do Smart Cities Compromise Citizen Privacy?

Welcome to the April 2022 issue of Incognito, a monthly newsletter from DeleteMe that keeps you posted on all things privacy and security.

Here’s what we’re talking about this month: 

  • Is 2022 going to be the year of “smart cities”? The $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law late last year allocates $500 million in grants to US cities that want to become “smart.” But what are the privacy implications of smart city projects? 
  • Recommended reads, including “Conti Leak Confirms Cybercriminals Use Data Brokers.”
  • Q&A: Are passphrases better than passwords?

If you know someone who might enjoy learning more about data privacy, feel free to forward them this newsletter.

From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Boulder, Colorado, cities across the US (and the rest of the world) are investing in smart city technology. But as cities become smarter, does that mean city dwellers will have to say goodbye to their anonymity? 


What Is a “Smart City”?

A smart city is any city that uses digital technologies — think autonomous vehicles, drones, mobile apps, and sensors — to become more efficient, environmentally friendly, and socially inclusive. For example, a smart city might use street sensors to identify traffic jams and empty car parking spots, dim street lighting on streets without cars or pedestrians, or measure air and water quality.

Smart cities work by collecting data from residents and visitors. This might include information like how much water people use each morning, where they park their cars, or how fast they walk on the sidewalk. 


Do You Live In a Smart City?

There are two types of smart cities:

  1. “Incumbent” smart cities: Existing cities trying to become smarter. Over the years, Barcelona in Spain has introduced multiple smart city initiatives, including sensors that recognize emergency vehicles and turn the traffic lights green so that they can reach their destination faster. The city of Poznan in Poland is currently testing video surveillance technology that can track people, recognize fights, and identify sounds of explosions or gunshots. In the US, residents of Boston, Massachusetts, can use apps to report problems with city infrastructure, including potholes. Similarly, administrators in Washington, D.C. use video cameras and movement analytics data to see what and who is moving through the city to direct traffic and identify resource allocation.
  2. New smart cities: Governments and companies can build new smart cities from the ground up. The automotive manufacturer Toyota has just started constructing “Woven City,” a smart city at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. Described as a “prototype town of the future,” the city will be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell system (a clean fuel) and will act as a “living laboratory” for smart home-connected technology, AI, and autonomous cars. Closer to home, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spent $80 million on more than 24,000 acres of land in Arizona in 2017, intending to build a city with a “communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology.” More recently, the former President and CEO of Walmart US eCommerce Marc Lore said he is going to build a smart city in a yet-to-be-determined site (Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Texas, and the Appalachian Region are being considered) within the next eight years or so.

Most People Want to Live in a Smart City

According to a recent survey, just over 6 in 10 people in the US would like their city or town to become “smart.” And over 8 in 10 individuals said they would be moderately to very interested in moving somewhere with “smart city” features.

Living in a city or town that invests in “smart city” technologies can improve residents’ quality of life — or so 99.2% of individuals think. Only 1.1% of people are of the opinion that smart advancements wouldn’t help them at all.


Safer, Healthier, and Better Places to Live?

According to McKinsey, smart city features have great potential to improve city dwellers’ quality of life:

  • Less crime: Technologies like real-time crime mapping and predictive policing (i.e., fending off incidents before they happen, kind of like the plot of the 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report) could potentially decrease fatalities by up to 10% and reduce crime such as robbery, assault, and auto theft by between 30% and 40%.
  • Improved health. Demographic groups with high-risk profiles can be identified through data analysis and sent mobile health interventions notifying them of sanitation, vaccinations, safe sex, and other medical advice.
  • Decreased commute times. Through tools such as digital signage and mobile apps, drivers and public transport users can learn about delays in real-time and adjust their routes accordingly. Similarly, IoT sensors on physical infrastructure could lead to crews fixing road problems before they develop into breakdowns. On average, smart mobility applications could reduce commute times by 15% to 20%.

Or a Digital Surveillance State?

However, not everyone is on board with the idea of smart cities. Smart technologies can make it easier for law enforcement to track individuals and give tech companies yet another avenue to collect data about the public.

In an article on smart cities, the author Steven Poole likens smart cities to an “optimized panopticon” (a type of prison) and citizens within these cities to “unpaid data-clerk[s], voluntarily contributing information to an urban database that is monetized by private companies.”

  • In New York, which is fast becoming a smart city, LinkNYC kiosks give citizens access to free WiFi, USB charging ports, and free domestic calls. However, after you connect, the network tracks your location anytime you’re within 150 feet of a kiosk. Unsurprisingly, the CEO of Google’s Sidewalk Labs, which backs the LinkNYC project, said he expects to “make a lot of money from this.”
  • A year into a smart city project in Toronto (since abandoned), privacy expert Ann Cavoukian resigned from the project team, saying, “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.”

It’s not just that smart city systems can erode citizens’ privacy. They’re also not foolproof. In China, many cities use digital technology to instantly shame and fine jaywalkers. But the facial recognition systems behind this unique punishment are known to make mistakes. In 2018, the president of China’s top air-conditioning company Dong Mingzhu was pegged as a jaywalker, even though she was nowhere near the “scene of the crime.” Rather, what the camera saw was an ad of Dong on the side of a bus.


Smart Cities Are Not Cybersecure

Data security is another issue that needs to be considered. How will the data collected be stored and protected?

It is estimated that there will be more than 75 billion connected devices globally by 2025, many of them without basic security features. Attacks on smart systems have already contaminated drinking water in the US and prevented citizens from buying train tickets in Denmark. A city-wide hack could have disastrous consequences.


How to Fight Back Against Smart City Surveillance

Individuals living in cities that are becoming increasingly smarter need to lobby city administrators to protect their data privacy rights (for example, the city of Aizuwakamatsu in Japan allows residents to opt-in to its smartphone disaster alerts).

Other steps concerned individuals may be able to take include opting out of data collection whenever possible and using a VPN on public WiFi.


Recommended Reads

Our recent favorites to keep you up to date in today’s digital privacy landscape.

Twitter Introduces Tor Version of Its Service

Twitter has launched a Tor onion service, allowing for more private tweeting. Because the Tor network encrypts internet traffic, users can circumvent censorship and surveillance, accessing the social media site even in countries that have blocked it. The project has been in the works since 2014 (the year Facebook launched its onion service). The release coincides with Russia’s censorship policies.

Conti Leak Confirms Cybercriminals Use Data Brokers

One of the most successful ransomware groups globally, Conti, suffered a leak that shed light on its inner workings, including how it gathers intelligence. The gang has a dedicated open-source intelligence team that scours online sources, like targets’ own sites and online databases such as SignalHire and ZoomInfo, for information on victims. This information is likely used for spear-phishing campaigns and to “name drop” contacts within emails.

Utah Is the Latest US State to Enact a Data Privacy Law

Gov. Spencer Cox signed the Utah Consumer Privacy Act (UCPA) into law, making Utah the fourth US state to pass comprehensive consumer privacy legislation. The law, which goes into effect on December 31, 2023, gives Utah consumers the right to access, delete, and get a copy of their data. They can also opt-out of having their data sold and targeted advertising. However, the law has some limitations, like not allowing consumers to correct data that is inaccurate.

Meta Removes President Zelensky Deepfake

Meta removed a fake video — known as a deepfake — of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky instructing the military to lay down their arms. The deepfake also appears to have been broadcast on the hacked Ukrainian TV channel TV24 and circulated widely on the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte. According to several sources, this could be the first time a deepfake has been used to spread disinformation during an armed conflict.

You Asked, We Answered

Here is a question one of our readers asked us last month.

Q: I want to quit Google, but currently, I use a lot of Google products like Gmail and Google docs, and I’m having a hard time finding decent alternatives. My question is: is it possible to quit Google? Also, what about using Google products without signing into my account? 

A: It is possible to stop using Google and its products altogether, but whether it’s worth it will depend entirely on your tolerance for inconvenience.

Much like Apple and Microsoft, Google offers an “ecosystem” — hardware and software products that sync together, making it easier for individuals to do things. In 2022, Google aims to expand its ecosystem further, becoming more like Apple.

Therefore, when quitting Google, it’s important to remember that Google is not just the eponymous search engine, nor is it just Google Workspace, Google Maps, and Gmail, but also Waze, YouTube, Chrome, Android phones, Chromebook, Nest, etc. There are many alternatives for these products out there, some of them better than others. The Reddit forum degoogle is a great place to start if you’re serious about removing Google from your life.  

As to whether or not using Google products without an account has any benefits — Google still tracks data when you use its search engine or go onto YouTube, even if you’re not signed in. Moreover, because the vast majority of the 100,000 top websites on the internet use Google Analytics, any time you go onto one of these sites, your behavior is captured by Google. Still, the less data Google has about you, the better. 

Q: I read that using passphrases is better than passwords. Is that true? Are they actually safer?

A: The FBI thinks so. According to the FBI Portland office, combining multiple words into a passphrase that’s at least 15 characters long makes the password harder to crack due to the need for more computational resources. 

This is apparently true even if the words used are simple and the passphrase has no special characters. Two examples given by the FBI were: “VoicesProtected2020WeAre” and “DirectorMonthLearnTruck.” The latter is a particularly strong password because the words are unrelated to one another.

Another benefit of using a passphrase instead of a password? You’ll likely find it easier to remember.

Alternatively, you can use a password manager. Remember: passwords can be safe. It’s just that most of us choose to use weak passwords (for example, the name of your pet or the city you were born in). What’s more, we tend to reuse the same password across different accounts — a big no-no.

Back to You

We’d love to hear your thoughts about all things data privacy.

Get in touch with us. We love getting emails from our readers (or tweet us @Abine or @DeleteMe).

Don’t forget to share! If you know someone who might enjoy learning more about data privacy, feel free to forward them this newsletter.

Let us know. Do you live in a smart city? Would you like to move to one? And how do you think smart city technologies will impact our privacy? Also, are there any specific data privacy topics you’d like us to explore in the upcoming issues of Incognito?

That’s it for this issue of Incognito. Stay safe, and we’ll see you in your inbox next month.

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