'Smart city' rollout raises privacy concerns

'Smart city' rollout raises privacy concerns

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The development of smart cities is set to be one of the biggest priorities for city managers and infrastructure deployers in the coming years. With the urban population set for huge growth in the next decade or so, the use of new technology to manage and optimise everything from public transport systems to utility networks will be vital.

Much of these innovations will rely on an array of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to operate, but concerns are now being raised about the potential privacy impact these devices may have on citizens.

Campaigners are warning that a new development in Peterborough, which uses IoT sensors connected to a full fibre broadband network, are turning parts of the city into 'surveillance zones'.  

The trial scheme is being run by CityFibre in partnership with social housing provider Cross Keys Homes. It will take advantage of a £30 million project to install full fibre connectivity in the city and will explore how smart IoT sensors can monitor health, safety and environmental factors in the area.

However, it has been criticised by anti-surveillance pressure group Big Brother Watch, which warned of unintended consequences of the sensors.

A spokesman for the group said: "Many residents will feel deeply uncomfortable living surrounded by 'noise sensors' and 'parking sensors'. They're being treated like lab rats in a surveillance experiment. The council ought to review this decision urgently."

The concerns have been rejected by CityFibre and Cross Keys, which have stressed that the IoT devices used are not intended to gather any personal data, and are only placed in homes with the full consent of residents, who can choose to opt out of the scheme.

A CityFibre spokesperson said: "This IoT technology monitors environmental data not personal data, including ambient temperature, water and CO levels. Applications like these have the potential to improve residents’ safety and comfort, increase energy efficiency and deliver cost savings."

However, regardless of the actual capabilities of the scheme, it should serve as a reminder of some of the challenges facing smart city projects and the steps installers must take. Smart city developments therefore need to consider not only the technical side, but also how to ensure public acceptance of the technology.

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