Sunday, 18 March 2018

"You have to be able to imagine yourself unwatched" - how smart cities threaten freedom

There has been a great deal of "isn't it scary" discussion about the pretty clunky on-line targeting systems developed for political campaigning. We're told that there are sinister forces at work out there conspiring to undermine democracy by scraping Facebook for psychographic profiles allowing intimate knowledge of everyone:
A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
I'm not going to say much about this, it adds nothing much to what I said previously about what this company did - they used the Facebook API to create a profiling tool based on responses to a psychometric test. This is not really any different, other than its source, from the psychographics that profiling systems (e.g. SuperProfiles) have been employing since the 1990s - the lifestyle data back then was gather from questionnaires sent as parcel stuffers and inserts but it served exactly the same purpose as the data collected using Facebook's API by Cambridge Analytica.

Anyway, while everyone is having kittens about the use of data analytics in political campaigning (and rightly asking questions about data security and data protection - there's genuinely a question as to whether the data collected using Facebook quizzes is allowable as a data source for marketing), there's something else happening that should be just as concerning - so-called "smart cities":
Across the UK we are seeing more and more examples of smart city transformation. Key 'smart' sectors utilised by such Cities include transport, energy, health care, water and waste. Against the current background of economic, social, security and technological changes caused by the globalization and the integration process, cities in the UK face the challenge of combining competitiveness and sustainable urban development simultaneously. A smart city is a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses.
Wonderful. The application of all that clever and disrupting digital technology to making cities work better can only be a good thing, can't it? And I guess that, in a utilitarian, people-as-units, prudence-only way, it is a good thing:
Utrecht has become a tangle of individual pilots and projects, with no central overview of how many cameras and sensors exist, nor what they do. In 2014, the city invested €80m in data-driven management that launched in 80 projects. Utrecht now has a burglary predictor, a social media monitoring room, and smart bins and smart streetlights with sensors (although the city couldn’t say where these are located). It has scanner cars that dispense parking tickets, with an added bonus of detecting residents with a municipal tax debt according to the privacy regulation of the scanner cars.
These systems can be directed to nudging people along the city authorities preferred choices: "...a smart traffic app that rewards people for good behaviour like cycling, walking and using public transport." Brilliant stuff taking the city closer to that mythical "walkable, livable, sustainable" utopia beloved of today's City Managers, the "Mayors who Rule the World". But at what cost?
In the eastern city of Enschede, city traffic sensors pick up your phone’s wifi signal even if you are not connected to the wifi network. The trackers register your MAC address, the unique network card number in a smartphone. The city council wants to know how often people visit Enschede, and what their routes and preferred spots are. Dave Borghuis, an Enschede resident, was not impressed and filed an official complaint. “I don’t think it’s okay for the municipality to track its citizens in this way,” he said. “If you walk around the city, you have to be able to imagine yourself unwatched.”
Some are concerned that much of this data is being collected, analysed and employed by private businesses - the smart city is a privatised city, they say - but we should also be concerned about the state having such detailed information about the citizen - "Big Brother is helping you" says Peter van de Crommert from the Dutch Institute for Technology, Safety and Security. But let's imagine - as we always should with state power - what happens when the wrong sort of person gets hold of this information and these systems (if you're me, then the government is, by definition, the wrong sort of person)? And who exactly is the city being run for - citizens, business or the convenience of public officials?
The city also keeps track of the number of young people hanging out in the streets, their age group, whether they know each other, the atmosphere and whether or not they cause a nuisance. Special enforcement officers keep track of this information through mobile devices. It calls this process “targeted and innovative supervision”.
The aim seems to be management, preventing such sins as "hanging about", reducing activities deemed anti-social such as having a drink or making a noise (other than in constrained places where some of this is allowed).
This “smart” urbanity revolves around surveillance and relentless data-gathering. Swarms of monitoring sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets will be constantly on duty. Google would collect data about everything from water use to air quality to the movements of Quayside’s residents, using that data to run energy, transport, and all other systems. In this controlled environment, consent over pillaging personal data “goes out the window straight away”...
At the heart of all this is the essentially autocratic and anti-democratic idea that the behaviour of the citizenry should be controlled, managed and directed towards a culture determined by those in charge of the city (and those with access to those in charge). This draws on the idea of corporate culture, Peter Drucker's thesis that business success is, in large measure, determined by culture has been stretched to form an ideology of the city as an entity requiring management, organisation and direction. As the smart city folk say:
"...combining competitiveness and sustainable urban development..."
This conveniently marries the obsession with dense, piled up cities (and the idea that agglomeration - cramming people together - is the secret of economic success) and the belief that cities, regions and nations are in competition, part of that 'global race' David Cameron liked to talk about. The symbol of this world is Singapore, that little autocracy on the equator where utilitarian control has been elevated into a state system - a pseudo-democratic de facto police state where producing is easy but consuming is frowned upon and the election unit is based in the prime minister's office:
"Meanwhile, although present to some degree, civil society plays a much less active rule in Singapore’s political sphere due to governmental attempts to stifle civil society’s maturation. Specifically, the institutions that constitute Singapore’s government are largely structured to undermine the expression of critical voices. Not only are the vast majority of media outlets controlled by the state, but the country’s Sedition Act also criminalizes any publication or even expression that seeks “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government."
The price of this city state ideology, the premise of the smart city, is the relegation of people's lives to a place akin to employees of a benignly controlling corporation - bounded, directed, managed and only free within the limits determined by the corporation. It is the neoliberal city where maximising utility takes on the form of a religion, a smart city where data directs what people do, where they go and what resources they use - made possible through an unholy alliance between intrusive technology and what we used to call municipal socialism. And most people are either inside these cities consuming the bread and circuses but unable to secure a real stake or outside and unable to access the shiny wonders of the smart city:
...the city is a failing model - at least the idea of the concentrated, centralised, mayor-led city. These things are parasites, sucking away all the good from small towns with the promise of riches, opportunities and better bars while giving little back when it comes to the long-term quality of our lives. Urbanists talk about 'liveability' and 'walkability', about public spaces, even about play - yet the reality of the city is selfish, focused on the here and now rather than on creating places to which people can relate, where they might want to spend their whole lives.
Instead of creating places that are safe, sustainable and social because the people living there feel that way, we try to make places like this through control, clever technology and ever more restrictive regulation. The smart city may be clever but it's a place where corporations - public and private - control technology, where citizens are motivated by petty rewards (a day's free parking or a discounted theatre ticket), and where democracy is a facade covering up a society run by the new data kings, the controllers of the system.

UPDATE: If you think I'm being a scaremonger, try this:
Police in Raleigh, North Carolina, have presented Google with warrants to obtain data from mobile phones from not just specific suspects who were in a crime scene area, but from the mobile phones of all people in the area, reports Raleigh television affiliate WRAL. The request will trouble Fourth Amendment advocates as it could be seen that police are carrying out unreasonable searches on people who just happened to be in the area at the time the crimes were committed. And the area sizes the police requesting the data on are not small. In one instance, police requested user data from Google for anyone within a 17-acre area. For its part, Google has not revealed whether it has complied with the police request.



formertory said...

Technology is wonderful - I wish I'd been born 40 years or so later than I was - but this smart cities business is scary. By chance, I happened to see this article yesterday based on a paper from O2, the mobile telecoms provider - how 5G will revolutionise cities. The original O2 release is here .

I rather feel that anyone who can read that without feeling a chill sweep through them hasn't really understood some of the implications of the technologies in use. Even the O2 COO's summary comment can raise an eyebrow:

....while 5G promises a range of unprecedented benefits, we should be clear that these won’t be achieved without collective investment and collaboration. That means complete alignment from operators, public service providers, local authorities, landlords and technology companies

Collective investment? Compulsorily, no doubt. Complete alignment? Crikey. I hear and obey, oh Master. Singapore, here we come.

Will Robinson said...

@formertory I suspect O2 might be referencing the fact that to fully realise 5G we need to turn 2G off and install either more masts or more data ducting to carry those higher data demands.

@Simon I think as I get older I start to worry about this state data collection malarky. While I (mostly) trust our current and previous administrations the more I travel the more I worry it only takes one parliament to erode some pretty fundamental freedoms and just how hard that slippery slope would be to undo. That being said, there's some seriously awesome tech that we need to embrace. Tricky balance methinks.