Councils urged to bake digital rights into smart cities as CCTV and facial recognition raise fears

By Stephen Easton

November 19, 2019

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Australian advocacy group Digital Rights Watch is calling out local councils over the “surveillance technology, data collection and privacy invasion” that is on the rise through various smart-city projects in towns and cities around the country.

The group wants local governments to pledge their commitment to “protect, promote and monitor” the individual rights of people in their regions by joining a global declaration launched last year by authorities in Barcelona, Amsterdam, and New York City, and supported by the United Nations Human Settlements Program.

Councils that sign up would agree to “share best practices, learn from each other’s challenges and successes, and coordinate common initiatives and actions” to ensure the rights of individuals are respected as they roll out their smart city projects.

Local governments often install CCTV cameras in the name of community safety, even in communities that are very safe by any standard already, despite a distinct lack of evidence that it is effective at anything other than making people think they will be safer. In recent years, a lot of councils have been encouraged to buy CCTV systems by dubious federal grants programs that have been credibly labelled as examples of pork-barrelling and criticised by the auditor-general both in 2015, and again in 2016.

A lot of these cameras have facial recognition capabilities, and the images they record are shared with certain state and federal police and law enforcement agencies under various arrangements, depending on the jurisdiction. Face tracking technology is being put into use all over the country, typically with minimal or no public consultation, including in Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane and Darwin, where the council claimed it would not use the technology while noting it would comply with requests from certain federal or state agencies.

Digital Rights Watch director Tom Sulston says “the rapid expansion of surveillance technology in public spaces” is eroding privacy rights.

“Technology is developing far more rapidly than we could have predicted just a few decades ago. Increases in computer power; access to more sophisticated surveillance systems; data-matching and linked databases; and a rise in the use of AI and automated systems have seen many governments expanding their ‘public safety’ programs and turning to the concept of developing ‘smart cities’,” Sulston said in a statement.

“But it’s the wrong kind of smart. So-called ‘smart’ data-centric projects focus on the constant generation, collection and processing of data. As we place sensors and CCTV cameras all over our streets, buildings and public spaces, we are building a world in which we are constantly subject to surveillance. That comes with a cost to our right to privacy.”

Sulston notes the lack of evidence supporting the endless proliferation of CCTV cameras in public spaces, which can increase a feeling of safety among certain people and local business owners but are not actually very effective in preventing crime.

“It’s time for local governments to step-up and take concrete steps towards protecting the privacy of their citizens,” he said.

The declaration includes five points inspired by the work of the global Internet Rights and Principles Coalition:

  • Everyone should have access to affordable and accessible internet and digital services on equal terms, as well as the digital skills to make use of this access and overcome the digital divide.
  • Everyone should have privacy and control over their personal information through data protection in both physical and virtual places, to ensure digital confidentiality, security, dignity and anonymity, and sovereignty over their data, including the right to know what happens to their data, who uses it and for what purposes.
  • Everyone should have access to understandable and accurate information about the technological, algorithmic and artificial intelligence systems that impact their lives, and the ability to question and change unfair, biased or discriminatory systems.
  • Everyone should be represented on the internet, and collectively engage with the city through open, participatory and transparent opportunities to shape the technologies designed for them, including managing our digital infrastructures and data as a common good.
  • Everyone should be able to use the technologies of their choice, and expect the same level of interoperability, inclusion and opportunity in their digital services. Cities should define their own technological infrastructures, services and agenda, through open and ethical digital service standards and data to ensure that they live up to this promise.
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