Digital rights in the era of data collection and smart city tech

Authors: Katya Abazajian and Becca Warner
Originally published in the Sunlight Foundation blog.

In September 2018, the New York Times reported that a security breach at Facebook had exposed 50 million users to data theft. The breach of such a ubiquitous social media site, which houses a host of personal data from email addresses to credit card information, is a startling reminder of the power technology companies have in dictating our digital lives. And now tech giants like Google’s Alphabet are turning their focus toward urban data collection, enabling sensor-laden cityscapes to collect data on large swathes of cities’ residents. 

Cities don’t control private entities and how their tech developments shape cities, but they do control public spaces, public infrastructure, and democratic decision-making, and they must leverage that power to ensure residents have an active say in how technology shapes public life.

Especially because new smart cities will enable the collection of unprecedented amounts of public data, officials will need to decide how they’ll protect residents’ digital rights. If cities do not address these questions head on, they risk ceding civic space and decision-making to tech companies who are already setting the stage for mass data collection on the built environment of city life.

Why digital rights?

Digital rights are the human rights of the internet era. They are often defined to be inclusive of:  the right to access the internet, the right to online privacy and the right to freedom of expression online. In the open government arena, we envision digital rights expanding to mean more – namely, the right of citizens to hold their governments accountable when technology and emerging digital processes are not serving their best interests.

The Sunlight Foundation advocates for technology and data to enable government transparency and accountability. Data and technology should enable  better public feedback and active participation in policy and decision-making. In other words, public data and technology should expand civic space, not limit it.

As the discussion of emerging privacy concerns in technology-first government data practice reaches a critical juncture, the Open Cities team welcomes a new era, shifting focus from the foundational advocacy for open data and right to information law toward direct support for cities working to adopt policy and practice for digital rights focused on equity and openness in communities. Clearly, this means that any data governments collect in the pursuit of more efficient and effective governments must be publicly accessible. But this should only be the first step for governments looking to use smart city and other technology in their cities.

Governments with access to huge amounts of data, but without transparency or accountability pose a very real threat to civil liberties. Governments have to be proactive in their work to protect citizen interests – this means the implementation of mechanisms to allow folks to participate in the conversation and hold government accountable must happen before, not after, new technology is put to use.

Additionally, if cities don’t assume their role as community protectors and conveners in relation to urban tech companies, they risk ceding civic space to private entities, and marginalizing the very people they are charged to protect.

Local governments have an advantage to governments and even companies operating on the national stage, in that residents are more likely to participate when issues affect their daily lives. Government staff already convene residents regularly for a spate of civic issues, guaranteed by their democratic rights, why not allow residents the right to their public, digital identities.

Governments should have conversations with citizens about how technology impacts public life, and welcome the opportunity for critical thinking and risk assessments in partnership with residents.

Embracing collective digital rights

Sunlight Open Cities has long believed that an open city should be a responsible steward of technology, wielded transparently, as one tool among many for improving cities and empowering residents. Cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona have signed onto ambitious pledges as part of Decode – putting citizens at the center of government-hosted conversations and public feedback processes. In these cities, officials hope that residents will have a real shot at defining their rights in digital civic spaces. 

We are going to work harder to keep cities accountable to the democratic values we espouse – this means holding the line at the establishment of formal policy and processes that cement commitment to resident-first data and technology.

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