Smart cities and your personal security
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Smart Cities will be safer and better for citizens?

Smart Cities will be safer and better for citizens?

Posted on 11th April 2018

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surveillance camera

Quite a lot of people believe that if you behave decently, break no laws and do nothing you would be ashamed of then you should not have to worry about any surveillance cameras, whether they belong to the state or private companies.  Similarly, most people “behave” on Facebook and only post pictures of their families, pets and social lives. That’s OK, even if lots of others post political poison or worse, because, well, Facebook is just such good fun if you “behave.”

So there is no need to worry, because those cameras are so old hat and Facebook wouldn’t do anything dodgy with our data, would they? We’re OK, aren’t we?  The world of technology is benign, oh apart from those hackers, but they haven’t affected me (yet) so that’s OK.  Technology is a force for good, isn’t it?

In the midst of the furore about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, both of whose use of data seems, on the face of it, to be concerning (to put it mildly), it’s worth casting an eye on what’s happening on the other side of the world….

However, first imagine that you live in a city, say Belfast, Edinburgh or Manchester.  Then imagine that its local authority is spending a lot of money making your city the leading “smart” city in the UK.  As a techie, or someone working in IT generally, you’ll probably think that’s really cool. 

Now imagine that the local authority and national government have access to all that “smart” information – that they can see how you use goods and services, how you pay for them, what sites you visit etc. OK, that helps with planning and services, doesn’t it? No worries there.

Finally, imagine that the state starts to reward citizens for “good” behaviour and penalising them for “bad” (or if you prefer to dress it up, “inappropriate”) behaviour.  When you crash a red light or put something up on Twitter that slates a local politician it’s held against you on a digital profile.  You start to become ranked by the authorities, either as a citizen who is a problem or as a morally upright and well-behaved sort of person.  Is this now alright because, well, if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve nothing to fear?

I suspect that, like me, the prospect of this brave new world fills you with more than a little bit of trepidation.  Especially when you find that that imaginary smart city I have just described already exists. It’s called Hangzhou and it’s in China.  There, every resident’s social media activity, purchases and movements are tracked. In another Chinese city, called Suining, a pilot scheme is already awarding people points for “good” behaviour, and deducting them for “bad” behaviour.  This has been described elsewhere by Anne McElvoy, a senior editor at 
The Economist and a panellist on 
Radio 4’s Moral Maze. 

It sounds quite preachy I know, but I don’t want my children growing up in that sort of world.  And while I yield to no-one in my belief that technology can be a force for unmitigated good, I am not naïve enough to think that it can’t be used for (very) bad purposes, and not just because I’ve watched a lot of James Bond films.  It is incumbent on everyone working in IT to strive to do good. Currently, I’m not hopeful that everyone is….

Gareth Biggerstaff, CEO, Be-IT



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