Data protection in smart cities: Safeguarding citizen privacy

Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva


New York, Chicago, and Dallas are leaders of the smart city initiative: These interconnected cities facilitate smart transport, such as efficient traffic management and toll energy efficiency, emphasising sustainability and public safety.

The future of smart cities looks bright, with recent reports suggesting that the proliferated smart city technology market will increase revenue by US$310 billion by 2032.

As technology develops across our most loved cities, what frameworks are in place to safeguard citizen privacy? Read on to learn what threats smart cities pose to public privacy and review frameworks intended to maintain safeguarding. 

Are Smart Cities a threat to citizen privacy?

Advanced technology sits at the core of a high-functioning smart city. Facial and car registration sensors are in the interests of public safety and establishing efficient traffic flow, but they raise privacy concerns. Here are some examples:

  • Information sharing with authorities: Authorities might access cellular data or connections to urban Wi-Fi to gather evidence. Analysts may use activity to create heat maps and draw conclusions about the city’s behaviour.
  • Data theft: Stored data could become leaked, stolen, or sold to third parties for marketing or fraud against citizens’ wishes.
  • Infringement on free movement and speech: Facial recognition and overbearing surveillance may prevent people from attending political events, such as voting in ballots or joining demonstrations, for fear of being recognised.

For instance, sensors offer a pay-as-you-go functionality, so drivers can pass through toll-restricted tunnels and zones knowing payment will be collected automatically. Although efficient, citizens feel officials can now monitor their movements. Their car is easily linked to their identity and financial credentials, creating a sense of “big brother is watching.” 

Technology stores public information in large databases, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), increasing the risk of hackers accessing people’s location, journey, registration, address, and bank details. With all the above dangers, reliable IoT device management is crucial for an enterprise network’s well-being and smooth functioning. IoT device management consists of all the tools, programs, settings, and equipment to manage remote devices and secure threats in the digital world.

Data protection frameworks in Smart Cities

Smart cities strive to sustain a balance between efficacy and privacy. Here are several frameworks to protect citizens:

Smart security measures

Rugged, adjustable cameras, such as IP bullet security cameras, observe street activity, public transport stations, and organisations’ premises. Their broad coverage enables authorities to respond to incidents quickly and track people of interest. Cities maximise security by installing facial recognition cameras around entry points and high-volume areas. These measures facilitate the following:

  • Protect vulnerable people.
  • Identify missing individuals.
  • Secure ride-sharing apps.
  • Minimise crime, like theft and anti-social behaviour.

Cities must adopt a human-centric approach to combat infringement on public confidentiality. The Journal of Law and Mobility suggests smart cities should engage with public input to sustain transparency over the use of smart technology, such as cameras. Ultimately, citizens must have a choice over certain measures.

Citizen awareness and education

The US Privacy Act ensures citizens maintain the right to know the data technologies gather and understand its purpose. At any time, they retain the right to revoke information, such as an email address, credit card details, or name. 

Similarly, vendors should educate employees on complying with data collection and protection laws via cybersecurity certifications and assessing new vulnerabilities.

Secure Internet of Things

Security requirements in the IoT prevent data breaches and falsification. Smart cities employ the following methods to preserve the integrity of private data:

  • Data handling: Research shows that smart cities handle open and closed data together, so it’s less susceptible to attack.
  • NEC distribution platform: NEC America assigns authorisation to specific users, meaning access controls are restricted to those individuals.
  • Tamper detection: Specialised sensors sound audible alerts upon events like penetration and input frequency variations, significantly reducing the risk of data manipulation.

Privacy by design and anonymity

Smart cities can preserve anonymity by placing measures, such as air quality or traffic sensors, as close to the subject as possible. Here, privacy by design aims to improve the legitimacy of data collected for the proposed purpose. For example, placing traffic cameras along the roadside prevents pedestrians’ full movement from staying within range, enhancing a sense of anonymity.

Pseudonymisation also protects unpurposed data from being collected. The Data Protection Commission, pseudonymisation defines this as de-identifying unnecessary information gathered. 

For instance, organisations can focus on a person of interest while blurring images of nearby pedestrians to protect their identity. Anonymity gives citizens back some control over collected data.

Final thoughts

Smart cities are continually developing. Fundamentally, the most effective method of protecting citizens’ privacy is transparency and maintaining a focus on security and efficiency. Privacy by design is paramount to this balance – it shows citizens that technologies like cameras and sensors are there for beneficial purposes, like improving sustainability or safety, rather than to follow them.

Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva

A digital content manager based in the Philippines, Kaycee Enerva has written for multiple publications over several years. A graduate of Computer Science, she exchanged a career in IT to pursue her passion for writing. She's slowly practicing sustainability through period cups, and eating more plant-based food.


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