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Are Smart Cities And Digital Privacy Fundamentally At Odds?


Experts predict an increase of 4,300% in annual data generation by 2020. From facts and figures about our shopping habits and how we travel, to energy meters in our homes and data on the rubbish we throw out, this information could help society be more sustainable.

But evidence suggests that modern cities also place a high value on privacy and digital security. Some argue that the scale of this unprecedented flow of information undermines urban anonymity, and the 2015 Economist Safe Cities Index incorporated a digital security metric alongside traditional measures of safety such as personal security and health. In developing smart cities as the new paradigm, authorities and businesses will need to negotiate this delicate balance. Do, and should, urban populations have a choice in their information being sourced and aggregated? What degree of privacy invasion will be tolerated?

“Privacy has become a tool of the trade. We pay for personalised services with our data,” says Jarmo Eskelinen, a Finnish data privacy specialist and founder of the Forum Virium Helsinki innovation lab.

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“We are increasingly using digital platforms to manage different aspects of our lives, from payments to fitness. They are great; cost-effective, easy to use, available everywhere. All those services need our data to work. They also capitalise on our data. As users, we don’t have a proper view of where our information is and how it is being used. The landscape is getting increasingly complex, and we are lacking both the skills and tools of proper data management.”

Eskelinen, who in April took up the post of chief innovation and technology officer at the London-based Future Cities Catapult, is also vice chair of the Open and Agile Smart Cities Network. This initiative’s 31 member cities – including urban hubs in Finland, Italy, Spain and Brazil – have signed up to promote open, smart cities based around the needs of communities. Forum Virium helped Helsinki pioneer the use of open data via the company’s MyData concept which is designed to give individuals more control over data management.

“Privacy has been seen mostly as a legal matter. In the digital age, we should also approach it as a technical and usability challenge,” explains Eskelinen. “MyData gives individuals the rights to access the data collected about them by developing open standards and tools for management of personal data.”

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