PR & Marketing (2018)

Idea of a “Smart City”

The BigBrotherAward 2018 in the “PR and Marketing” Category goes to the idea of a “Smart City”. The advertising concept of a “Smart City” is used by tech companies to try to sell the idea of a “safe city” to municipal administrations: A city, covered in sensors, under total surveillance, remote-controlled and commercialised. “Smart Cities” reduce their citizens to mere consumers, change consumers into data sources and our democracy into a privatised service.
Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage

The BigBrotherAward 2018 in the “PR and Marketing” Category goes to the idea of a “Smart City”!

The “Smart City” concept espouses the “Safe City”: a city covered in sensors, under total surveillance, remote-controlled and commercialised. “Smart cities” reduce their citizens to mere consumers, change consumers into data sources and our democracy into a privatised service.

A “Smart City” is the perfect combination of the totalitarian police state in George Orwell’s “1984” and the standardised, only seemingly free consumers in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

The term “Smart City” is a shining, colourful bag of tricks – it promises to everyone whatever they want to hear: innovation and modern city marketing, efficient government and citizen participation, sustainability and climate protection, security and comfort, perfectly phased traffic lights for cars and always a free parking spot. It all started with IBM in 2008 with their slogan of a “smart planet”, implying that they would be able to make our planet more “intelligent”. Many more companies are now in the business of trying to sell their services to cities, for example Siemens, Microsoft, Cisco, Huawei, Hitachi and Osram.

But what does a “Smart City” really look like?

One example of the great achievements of a “Smart City” is a new type of street light. It doesn’t only light up the dark, it also includes a CCTV camera, pedestrian recognition, number plate scanners, environmental sensors, a microphone with gunshot-detector, and a locator beacon for recording the position. When we imagine all this, combined with WiFi for determining the positions of smartphones, face recognition and motion analysis, it becomes clear that in a city with this kind of technology it will become impossible to walk a single step without being watched.

With today’s technology (…) we can create absolutely safe cities. The new face recognition technology enables governments and private enterprises to recognise and archive all faces, where previously this was limited to registered criminals”, the Turkish surveillance technology provider Ekin gushed in a press release about the “Safe City”. The face recognition system assigns an ID to every facial feature that can be used to identify that person later, even if the name is unknown, and also analyses age, gender and ethnicity.

While the advertising for the “Smart City” in Germany still focuses on sustainability, protection of the environment, efficiency and comfort, technology companies in China, Dubai and Turkey openly discuss what it’s really about: unbroken surveillance and control of the populace.

The combination of CCTV surveillance and artificial intelligence is burgeoning in China. The leading Chinese company for face recognition software, SenseTime, is excited about “the high demand fueled by Smart Cities and surveillance”1.

In the special economic zone of Shenzhen in Southern China, close to Hong Kong, jaywalkers will be identified immediately and pilloried on big monitors also displaying their personal data. A fine is calculated and the employer will be notified. Points will also be deducted from their “social score”, which decides about getting an apartment, a new job or a place at university.

The whole province of Xinjiang in Northwest China has become a real-time laboratory for mass surveillance. DNA and blood type of everyone between the ages of 12 and 65 is being tested, iris scans, finger prints and 3D images are created, all that as part of a so-called “free health check”2. In addition, the Chinese government installed a surveillance system in 2017 that automatically informs the police when a suspect moves more than 300 m away from his apartment or his workplace3. Not just criminals are suspects, but also members of the Muslim minority and people campaigning for human rights.

So you think China is far away?

Well, at the railway station “Südkreuz” in Berlin the federal police has been testing intelligent CCTV surveillance with face recognition since August 2017. This is the beginning. And it does not matter what the results of this “test” will be, Ex-Minister of the Interior Thomas de Mazière already announced at the beginning of this field trial that face recognition shall be introduced nation-wide in as many public places as possible. The new Minister of the Interior confirmed that he shares this view. And what is more: the new Federal Government already made a note in their coalition contract about further development towards “intelligent” CCTV surveillance. Tasteful streetlights with surveillance cameras and sensors can already be admired in “Arcadia”, a gated community in the city of Potsdam, neighbouring Berlin.

Or let us look at our close neighbours, the Netherlands, where “Smart Cities” are springing up like tulips: the city of Enschede wants to know who moves around where, and how often, and to this end is tracking all people carrying a smartphone with active WiFi using its unique MAC address. The Enschede traffic app rewards people for good behaviour: walking, cycling, using public transport: ironically the reward is free parking in the city for a day. The thing you will only find in the fine print: the collected personal movement data are sent to a company called Mobidot.

In Eindhoven the party district Stratumseind has been turned into a surveillance laboratory. There are street lights with WiFi trackers, cameras and microphones intended to detect aggressive behaviour. Starting in spring 2018, orange scent will be sprayed as necessary to soothe people.

Utrecht, finally, spies on the city youth as they move along the streets: how many are there? How old are they? Do they know each other? How do they treat each other? Are they going to cause trouble or not? Since 2014 Utrecht has had 80 “smart” projects in the city, and lost the general overview of what is happening where, because most of these projects are in the hands of private enterprises4.

“Smart City” companies collect data and refuse to inform about it. Often they will not even grant the cities access to their data – because they are trade secrets! One cannot help but get the impression that the companies are trying to pull a fast one on the cities. But neither the citizens nor the press can really check, because the contracts between the cities and the “Smart City” service providers are not publicly available – for competitive reasons.

Yes, “smart” technology is expensive. Where can one get the money from? Cities are attracted by cheap entry offers and national and EU development funds. Once again cities are enticed into surrendering their infrastructure into private hands, just as they did with cross-border leasing in the 1990s5. That is neither clever nor smart, but rather short-sighted and dangerous.

And the threat is larger than just selling off municipal infrastructure. Cities are carelessly selling things that they don't own: the citizens' data – and their privacy, their autonomy and their liberty along with it.

Citizens are not being asked. After all, the tech companies just want to play – who could hold it against them? When it's about innovative tech projects, everything else has to take a back seat: “digital first, concerns second”. The American equivalent is called “permissionless innovation”6. That means that the precautionary principle has been suspended – whoever claims to be innovative, is not bound by petty rules.

It is clear to the companies: Not the service is the real cash cow, but the citizens’ data. Who would have a better understanding of that than Alphabet, Google’s parent company. They bought into Toronto, Canada, to develop the “Waterfront” quarter into a “Smart City”. The name of the project is “Sidewalk Labs”. But Google may not have expected quite how much criticism and specific data protection inquiries would be coming forth from the Canadian public7. Meanwhile, Sidewalk Labs has employed the former Canadian data protection officer, Ann Cavoukian. That’s a smart move. In 2009 Ann Cavoukian developed the concept of “Privacy by Design”. “Smart Cities”, however, rather incorporate “Surveillance by Design”. We are genuinely curious how she is going to bring one into the other without completely turning Google’s business model inside out.

But let’s not be too negative. We really like technology. Let us just assume that hack-proofing the networked systems would not be a problem. Assume that the state would intend to use the total surveillance to our sole benefit. That the tech companies would only ever do good with our data. And let’s picture this friendly “Smart City”, whose sensors follow us at all times, which tell us what to do next, and whose algorithms use our profiles to calculate our desires in real time, before we ourselves are even aware of them. Perfectly phased green traffic lights, always a parking spot, and always the current local nitrogen oxide measurements on my smartphone – doesn’t that sound like a dream come true?

In the land of milk and honey, roasted geese are flying into people’s mouths, ready to be eaten. But the land of milk and honey is not paradise. It satiates, but it does not make one happy. Comfort will make us lazy and stupid. We need those moments of almost tripping over, to train our sense of balance. We need the effort, to be able to appreciate the things we achieved. We need chance, something different, the unknown, surprise, a challenge, to learn and to develop. We as humans need to be able to decide freely, and we need the opportunity to make mistakes. What other way is there to train our “moral muscle”?

This is another reason why we have to stand up against the dictate of technology and techno-paternalism.

A city cannot be “smart”. The people living in it are smart. We have a choice: Do we want to live in a post-democratic world of consumption, where others take the decisions for us, and in which the only possible answer is “Ok”8? Or do we choose Freedom?

Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter, Vol. 4:
“[T]here will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

That time is now.

Congratulations for the BigBrotherAward, “Smart City”!


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Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

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The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.