‘Privacy Day’ explores how to yield benefits from smart cities without privacy pains

There’s been a lot of negative talk about smart cities lately, noted Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) Brian Beamish, so it’s easy to lose sight of how they can improve citizens’ quality of life.

Speaking at the IPC’s Privacy Day Symposium, Smart Cities: Building in Privacy and Ensuring Public Trust, Beamish highlighted positives such as improved traffic flow and better public safety while acknowledging that there are privacy risks that must be managed, among them surveillance, function creep (using data collected for a specific reason for other things without the subject’s knowledge or consent), and cyber security.

However, he pointed out, there are existing legal frameworks applicable to smart cities: the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) for the public sector, and, for the private sector, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

IPC Privacy Day Panel
The panel: (L to R) David Goodis, Lawrence Eta, Teresa Scassa, Oriana Sharp

There are also tried and true methods of data governance that should be applied to smart city projects, such as setting out the rules and making sure everyone understands them, ensuring contracts with third parties clearly define privacy and accountability requirements, defining goals and objectives at the start of the project, guarding against re-identification of de-identified data, minimizing the data collected, and considering less privacy-invasive ways to achieve goals.

Cyber attacks are a constant risk. “This is not an academic concern,” Beamish said. In Ontario, 15 health organizations alone reported attacks last year, mainly with ransomware.

Privacy watchdogs get involved with smart city projects

The IPC has been involved in several smart cities initiatives, he said. His staff noticed that the criteria for Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge had no mention of privacy, so they took the lead in organizing other provincial privacy commissioners and the federal privacy commissioner to write to Infrastructure Canada about the omission and recommend that privacy be added to the assessment of finalists’ projects. As a result, Infrastructure Canada added the requirement that finalists conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment and consult their local privacy commissioners; Beamish’s office is already working with the four Ontario finalists.

It is also involved with Sidewalk Toronto, the Alphabet-owned subsidiary that will be the largest smart city project in North America, and is eager to assist with its privacy problems.

Assistant commissioner responsible for policy and corporate services Davis Goodis then convened a panel to carry on the discussion. He began by asking panelists to define a smart city.

“It’s about how we’re looking to impact the lives of those who live, play, and work in the city,” said Lawrence Eta, deputy CIO, information and technology, for the City of Toronto.

Oriana Sharp, manager, information and archives, Region of Waterloo and privacy lead for Smart City Waterloo’s submission to the Smart Cities Challenge (one of five finalists for a $50 million prize) added, “It’s how we come together to solve large and small problems.” And it’s about breaking down silos, often between conflicting ideologies.

But, noted Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in information law and policy at the University of Ottawa, “The concept of ‘city’ shouldn’t be lost in the smart city. It’s the place where we live.”

There are a lot of privacy challenges to face in the creation of smart cities. Sharp said her team struggles with making sure that data will be used in an acceptable way, with proper consent in place. With seven municipalities in the region supplying data that had been collected for other uses, the team had to ask where the data came from, under what authority it was collected, and whether appropriate consent for its use had been granted. “It was taken as a teaching moment,” she said. In Phase 2 of the Smart Cities Challenge, she expects that there will be more issues with varying levels of privacy maturity.

Eta added, “It’s key for the public sector. We are stewards and custodians of data, using it for the public interest.”

Scassa said that for her, surveillance is a key concern. She’s now thinking about not only individual but group privacy; if de-identified data is used to profile segments, it leads to privacy issues. Her current pet peeve: the use of data in behavioural modification, for example, comparing an individual’s activities to neighbours (“see how your activity levels/gas usage/power usage compare”) to persuade them to change. “We have to ask the question about acceptable boundaries,” she said. “It raises questions about how good the data is, and how far we want the state to be pushing us.”

Eta particularly worries about tracking of vulnerable communities even in aggregate. It should be clear what the information is used for, and the intent of the aggregation. It shouldn’t create more issues for the target group.

So how can we protect privacy in a smart city?

On the technical side, Eta said that it’s important to have review boards that look at what data is moving through the infrastructure or exists on the edge and ensure policies and governance are in place. To him, a “board” is a group of people looking at data usage through an ethical lens.

Legally speaking, while there are some federal, provincial, and municipal privacy frameworks in place, Scassa said that they’re out of date and need revision. She believes that they need to address situations that span public and private sectors, as well as crossing domains, rather than having issues that are intertwined being dealt with separately – privacy issues under privacy law, human rights issues (which may involve privacy) under human rights laws, consumer issues under consumer legislation, and so forth. As things stand now, people have to first figure out what agency to complain to.

We also need to think about building repeatable and adaptable frameworks, she said, so every project doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s too expensive, too complex, too much work, and takes too much time to create new frameworks for each project.

Questions will still arise. “The world is moving to more digital,” Eta said. “What are we willing to accept? There will never be no risk. There needs to be education, especially among marginalized groups, so people can make informed decisions.”

You can watch a replay of the Symposium here; note that you should skip forward to 23:30 to avoid a long musical interlude (the start of the event was delayed by transit issues).


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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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