Ensuring privacy in a smart city

June 05, 2019 12:11
Efforts to develop a smart city must ensure the privacy of citizens as they enjoy the benefits of innovative technologies. Photo: AFP

What is the core value of a smart city? This topic recently aroused much interest.

I have just finished teaching the last lesson of a Master's degree program in smart city at the University of Hong Kong. My students were divided into groups to present the uniqueness of the smart city they had studied, and what Hong Kong could learn from the guests.

Most of the guests are well-respected in their fields of expertise and have given lectures to the class, including: Ms. Brenda Au Kit-ying, head of Energizing Kowloon East Office, Energizing Kowloon East Office; Mr. Ben Chan Siu-bun, assistant director, Survey & Mapping, Lands Department; Mr. Stephen Cheshire, Asia Pacific Innovation Lead, HSBC; Prof. Paul Cheung Ying-sheung, honorary professor, Department of Computer Science, The University of Hong Kong; Mr. Ricky Ho Wai-kee, chief engineer, Smart Mobility, Transport Department; Mr. Michael Law Hing-sun, assistant commissioner, Urban, Transport Department; Mr. Lee Tai-on, assistant director, Mechanical & Electrical, Water Supplies Department; Mr. Paul Poon Wai-yin, vice chancellor, CLP Power Academy, CLP Power Hong Kong Limited; Mr. Shun Chi-ming, director of Hong Kong Observatory; and Mr. Tony Wong Chi-kwong, assistant government chief information officer, Industry Development, Office of the Government Chief Information Officer.

The six groups of students took Boston, Estonia, Seoul, Singapore, London and Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, respectively, as the subject for their research.

Major cities seem to use more or less the same approach in developing a smart city. They use open data, smart lampposts, sensors and closed-circuit TV (CCTV) to detect road conditions in order to improve traffic flow, for example.

How can we ensure privacy while enjoying the benefits brought by innovative technologies?

Two years ago, Toronto, Canada, announced its plan to partner with Alphabet, Google's parent company, to develop a rundown area on the waterfront with the size of two Fanling golf courses into a high-tech community, to serve as a smart city demonstration. In the winter, the ice and snow melt when it comes into contact with the preheated roads, while the sensors monitor the road condition to ensure the safety of motorists and pedestrians, and there are driverless shuttles transporting people to their homes.

However, the consultant responsible for privacy issues of the project, Ann Cavoukian, resigned at the end of last year. Cavoukian, a former information and privacy commissioner for Ontario, pointed out that third parties are not required to de-identify the data they collect.

In other words, sensitive information such as the face of a citizen and car plates may be used for commercial purposes. This is against one of the original principles of the project, she said. So she quit.

Still on the issue of data privacy, one of the guests from the Transport Department told the class that they deliberately use CCTVs with lower-definition images and make sure that records are deleted after use to ensure personal privacy. The government wants to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a city under surveillance. This is reassuring.

The same thing is practiced in Chicago. In 2016, the University of Chicago launched the Array of Things, an urban sensing project.

Hundreds of sensor nodes were installed on lampposts to collect real-time environmental data, such as air quality, humidity, noise, traffic and pedestrian flow. A number of measures were taken to protect personal privacy. For example, cameras only record one or two still and low-resolution images per second, and the images are automatically removed a few minutes after data is extracted according to pre-defined requirements, such as the number of cars passing a street.

We always say that smart city is people-oriented. The focus of smart city is not about advanced technologies, but to assist the people to live a more peaceful, convenient and productive life.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong