New smart city dimensions: authoritarian regimes and technology giants

Cutting out the middleman. And communities and civil society and the public sector…

My report for the British Council on universities and smart cities described the first wave of smart cities led by large technology companies such as IBM and Cisco, followed by bottom-up movements from civil society groups. The report concluded that universities can effectively bridge the two and ensure communities have a say.

A couple of months after the final publication, I’m reflecting on how this picture varies outside of Europe (the focus of the research) and on additional forces that are shaping the story. Since publication I’ve briefly covered the dangers of smart city projects lacking effective partnerships in Canada, but there are two further movements that are worth keeping an eye on.

Technology giants

The first is smart cities by stealth. This movement enters through the back door (or, more accurately, is mounted onto your front door). Consumers purchase products like Ring, a doorbell fitted with a security camera, from Amazon. City hall is circumvented in the building of smart city networks, but is co-opted in later, as an excellent article in Wired (focusing on the US) explains:

In exchange for promoting Ring’s devices and its associated crime watch app Neighbors, cops are given access to a portal where they can ask citizens for footage from their cameras that may be connected to a crime without a warrant. The arrangements have come under growing scrutiny in recent months, as reporters and activists have criticised their lack of transparency and potential for privacy abuses. Public records obtained by journalists also show that Ring tightly controls how police officials can portray its dealings with the company.

These digital doorbells are motion-activated and detect activity up to around nine meters away. The creation of a massive net of video coverage managed by a private company has led 30 American civil rights organisations to ask government officials to investigate the company’s business practices and partnerships with police.

Amazon has much bigger ambitions in this area. The company’s new ‘Sidewalk’ protocol extends the connectivity of devices outside the home. The first product is a rather innocuous-sounding tag for tracking the location of your dog (called ‘Fetch’). Another article from Wired explains how the use of such devices by even a minority of people can envelop communities:

In its testing, though, [Amazon] sent out 700 gateway devices to Amazon employees in the Los Angeles basin, and because each one has a range of between 500m and up to a mile, Amazon was able to “basically cover where everyone lives in LA”… An innocent smart dog tracker like Fetch fits perfectly into this model of Amazon-networked communities sharing video, alerts and location tracking.

Authoritarian regimes

The second movement is a reminder that in some places the first wave of smart cities – a ‘top-down’ approach led by governments and industry – never really went away. Instead this approach has intensified as technology becomes cheaper and more powerful. The website Coda has excellent coverage of what it calls ‘authoritarian tech’, including the darker side of smart city projects and how ‘authoritarian technologies lurk around the infrastructure of smart cities’. Examples include how Western companies are aiding the surveillance architecture of smart cities in China, how technology is assaulting the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans and how technology can be used to surveil minorities like Uyghurs in China.

Bypassing civil society

Two stories are being told. One is vast infrastructure projects delivered across cities at scale, the other an accretion of thousands of devices. One is city government procuring from one or two companies, the other thousands of consumer transactions. But both, as the protests of American civil rights organisations and the coverage of Coda shows, have a lack of oversight and accountability and transparency, and omit the likes of civil society, universities and other bodies that can add so much.

(Photo by Miłosz Klinowski on Unsplash)

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