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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Notice and Consent in the Age of Smart Cities

cameras designed to look like birds

cameras designed to look like birds

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

Increasingly, many cities are relying on datasets collected by both public and private entities in an effort to better understand the realities of urban life; to predict and respond to constituents’ needs; to allot resources; to improve the delivery of services; and to reduce the costs associated with governance.

As an article titled “The Ethics of Smart Cities and Urban Science” notes,

a raft of new networked, digital technologies embedded into the fabric of urban environments … include digital cameras, sensors, transponders, meters, actuators, GPS and transduction loops that monitor various phenomena and continually send data to an array of control and management systems, such as city operating systems, centralized control rooms, intelligent transport systems, logistics management systems, smart energy grids and building management systems that can process and respond in real time to the data flow.

In general, ethical data collection requires notice and consent from the individuals about whom data is collected. Notice and consent are means of respecting people’s autonomy and dignity—of acknowledging certain rights of those being observed and tracked, as well as responsibilities of those doing the data collection.

What might notice and consent look like in the context of smart cities?

Will we see roadside billboards that will welcome visitors and add disclaimers like, “By entering this city, you are consenting to the audio and video recording and other means of tracking your activities within, and to the use of that data to deliver and improve city services”?

The benefits and harms of data collection are often not similar for different groups. Given that, should different neighborhoods get to make their own choices around smart city initiatives? Should street signs, rather than billboards, be accompanied “You are entering…” notices—allowing people, in some circumstances, to choose different routes?

Of course, city residents may vote to ban certain technologies, or certain forms of data collection, or certain uses of the collected data. However, many urban dwellers are not even aware of the cameras, sensors, and other devices for data collection that are increasingly being deployed in smart cities. Should those devices be designed as to be more obvious, providing a kind of visual notice?

Residents are also often unaware of the uses to which the data collected might be put, and to the policies put in place to enable or limit those uses. Should cities be required to mail residents (or email or text people flagged, via geofencing, as being within city limits) a detailed privacy policy document describing their city’s practices around “smart cities” initiatives?

If autonomy and dignity remain values that we want to uphold in the age of smart cities, how should we implement notice and consent, or what should replace those long-standing guardrails?

For a related IoT ethics case study, see “Smart Lampposts: Illuminating Smart Cities.”

Note: Join us for a related event: “Smart Governance for Smart Cities: Rights and Justice in the Age of Civic AI”—on Nov. 26 at Santa Clara University. Register now!

Photo: "Bird Watchers" by inky, cropped, is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Nov 5, 2019

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