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Smart Cities Are The Next Frontier In The Data Protection Debate

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Smart Cities Are The Next Frontier In The Data Protection Debate
Smart cities strive to make cities run more smoothly by using residents' data. But can they keep that data safe at the same time?
SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Smart cities are beginning to pop up all over the planet. The definition of a smart city can vary, but basically it's any city that is trying to create better services, operate more efficiently and increase public safety by using new technology and collecting data from residents. 

Cities are working on things like public Wi-Fi, better traffic management, driverless city buses, and kiosks that connect people with city events, nearby restaurants and emergency services — all helped along by information collected from residents. 

And that data can be extremely powerful. 

"It's more powerful than we might think, even than some of the social media we're sort of obsessed about," said Nancy Scola, senior technology reporter at Politico. "When you map that out and sort of peg it to other data, it tells a really sort of nuanced picture of the way that you're engaging with the world."  

In a time where data can be breached by hackers or a back door left open for data thieves to walk in and ransack the place, some people are sounding the alarm on smart cities because of concerns about data privacy. 

And so the biggest question is: Do we know how cities are protecting this data?

"We don't have a ton of insight. There's not sort of well-developed rules of how that data can be used. There's not a ton of real well-developed rules around that," Scola said. 

The concerns range from the sharing of data between the different municipal agencies that collect it to the private companies and vendors that get involved in helping boost these tech advances. 

"A lot of times when we have this more advanced infrastructure, it's third-party companies that are coming in and actually supplying those services. And there's not a real well-developed set of rules around how these companies are actually protecting that data," Scola said. 

And this is a global issue. The city-state of Singapore plans to become a smart nation by collecting traffic data to protect residents. 

The government insists the data will be anonymized and that outside consultants will test the system's security for weaknesses.

Google's parent company, Alphabet, is involved in working on Toronto's smart city initiative. It's having very public conversations with residents about how data is going to be used from the start. 

"There's a very spirited public conversation about Facebook and that sort of data. I think in five or 10 years, we're going to be having the same sort of debate about cities and data," Scola said. 

Newsy is a media partner at Smart Cities New York in May, so be on the lookout for more stories from us about smart cities around the country.