‘Smart city’ leaders urged to weigh innovation against privacy risks

A report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation urges city leaders to consider how citizen data is handled.
aerial shot of people walking in the street
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Smart city technologies have the potential to improve residents’ lives, but these benefits can only be reaped if public trust is maintained, says a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The report, published by the nonprofit think tank on Monday, recommends that cities interested in “smart technologies” balance any potential benefits to society against privacy concerns. These include the collection of personally identifiable information that could be exposed in a cyberattack, sold to a third party or used in government surveillance efforts.

Though some “smart city” initiatives collect information relating to individual behavior, many instead focus on initiatives using sensor-laden trash cans or streetlights that don’t collect data on individuals and thus have a very limited privacy risk, said Ashley Johnson, senior policy analyst at ITIF and author of the report.

“The vast majority of smart-city technologies that are currently being deployed and developed mostly collect data in aggregate about an entire community. They don’t need to collect individual information about people,” Johnson told StateScoop in an interview. “But there are definitely a few technologies that collect more personal information, especially transportation-related ones, that might collect information about where your car is at a given time.”


While some privacy advocates’ concerns about smart-city data collection are overblown, there are legitimate concerns about how companies working with cities use the data that is collected, Johnson said.

The report references the failed smart-city partnership between Toronto, Canada, and Sidewalk Labs, a former subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Despite extensive public engagement, the redevelopment of Toronto’s Quayside area — complete with “smart” traffic, waste, water and energy management — faced opposition from privacy advocates and was ultimately canceled in 2020.

“It’s important that any companies that have access to data follow the same rules that cities are hopefully following,” Johnson said. “That level of oversight and accountability is, I think, the most important concern.”

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