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  • Writer's pictureSofa Summits

Data Privacy & Protection in Smart Cities - A Current Buzz

The increasing benefits brought along by smart city technologies go hand in hand with increasing concerns regarding privacy. We are surrounded by data allowing smart cities to customise their operations and structure according to their citizens’ wants and needs. Everything is at our reach, accessible and comfortable, but how safe is this comfort?

The infrastructure of a truly smart city enables its extensive monitoring, ranging from air and water quality to energy usage and citizen mobility. Such processes, the more accurate they are, the more massive are the amounts of data they use and produce.

Modern cities use sophisticated networks of sensors that can collect data about almost anything that can be measured. AI programs are then in charge of processing this data to be further utilised in smart city programs and deliver the expected smart city commodities. However, it is this very data that the citizens are concerned about. Is it being collected without permission? Have we consented to give it away? Is it well protected by government authorities?

From a general standpoint, what we can assess so far in regards to citizens’ concerns and complaints is that their worries do not originate from their actual data collection, but from the possibility that said data might be used for other purposes than those it was collected for. Such concerns are also directly related to who is the data handler. Studies show that citizens across Europe trust medical and financial institutions the most when it comes to their data, while social media and search engines are the least trusted. Let us take a clearer look at the main segments where data privacy concerns emerge.


Data & Citizen Service

The first out of four main reasons why data collection may become a citizen concern relates to the most traditional data collected by the city about its inhabitants. Such data can include civil status, demographics, political affiliation, or work.

Local governments gather this data in order to monitor their demographic patterns and interactions with them, as well as to improve said interactions, with the overall purpose of enhancing the quality of city planning and services.

This kind of data has seldom been the subject of citizens’ concerns, as sharing it brings along social benefits. However, there is a thin line between its usage for civic and surveillance purposes, which for several local authorities rather blurry or non-existent.

Data & Citizen Surveillance

This segment refers to all sorts of data collected for surveillance, mainly police data being used in order to tackle offenses ranging from misdemeanors to criminal cases.

The latest innovation, which has also attracted citizens’ attention in recent years, is the facial recognition software, an innovation frequently found under scrutiny by city inhabitants and privacy advocates.

Nevertheless, the EU’s recent General Data Protection Regulation has addressed these concerns, ensuring the legitimate use of data, as well as offering citizens control over their own data, imposing severe fines in case of abuse.

Impersonal Data & Citizen Surveillance

This data section refers to information being used for surveillance purposes, but that cannot be linked to a specific individual. Such data can be gathered from monitoring traffic flows, public transport, or local events.

In the first instance, it is not perceived as sensitive, considering it does not “target” a specific individual. But if the case, said impersonal data can be enhanced and analysed in such ways that it suddenly becomes highly personal. The previously mentioned facial recognition software allows unprecedented precision in determining a person’s identity or even individual households thanks to location data, raising further civic suspicions.

Impersonal Data & Citizen Service

A vast majority of smart city technologies are dedicated to collecting this kind of data aiming at improving the city environment and operations. In this category, we can name real-time data used to monitor air and water quality, traffic noise, or waste management.

This segment presents the collection of the least sensitive kind of data, as the focus is placed on “what” rather than “whom”. Its usage seems to have the least impact on individual citizens, but once again, highly sophisticated profiling techniques can allow the identification of citizens from anonymous data.


In a study conducted by Vrge Strategies, it is revealed that 66% of Americans would choose not to live in a smart city. The reasons mentioned include a deep concern about cyber attacks, the possibility of data losses or unauthorised surveillance.

In order to correctly address these concerns, governments must engage in transparent communication with their citizens, while boosting citizen awareness and encourage participation. Smart cities are designed to enhance inhabitants’ quality of life - therefore, they must be built with citizens’ interests at heart.

Citizens will not simply give away their trust - it must be earned. And to that end, a series of measures can be implemented.

Transparent Explanations

Smart city technologies and developments are not understood by the main majority of citizens yet. It is essential that all software engaging in data collection such as IoT or AI, which for must may simply sound like scary words, be explained to the citizens in a clear manner.

Legal Framework

Underlining all the rules relating to data collection is key. Starting with how the data is processed and ending with all the ways it can be used, citizens must be briefed about these procedures.


The third parties involved in any data collection operations represent one of the main citizen concerns. Inhabitants must know who has access to their data, who owns it and who is accountable in the event of data loss.

Technical Security

Last but not least, the technical bit represents a fundamental aspect. Local governments must ensure that all IoT devices and connected platforms have an adequate level of cybersecurity, make sure that no sensitive information can be accessed by the general public and limit access to data as much as possible.

The increasing, widespread usage of both personal and impersonal data in smart cities calls for adequate measures to be taken as well. Citizens’ privacy and security must be valued and safeguarded, paving the way towards a society ruled by privacy awareness, knowledge, and implicitly digital safety.

Learn more about the societal and ethical challenges of data-driven cities & more at the second edition of the Smart Cities Summit.



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