Smart Cities, Surveilled Citizens

'Smart cities' technologies have grown in popularity during the coronavirus crisis, and are now being touted as tools of economic recovery – but they will also deepen the power of surveillance over our lives.

The city has been viewed as a key driver of the spread of Covid-19. Indeed, the Financial Times’ prominent death charts sketch out how major urban dwellings around the world compare in their tackling of the disease. This narrative is part of a rationale which will rescript our streetscape in the form of ‘smartness’ – a movement more focused on surveillance than emancipation.

Smart cities are a new urban project involving several key characteristics such as the widespread embedding of ICT into the urban fabric, and the creation of a knowledge economy through regulated real-time data flows. Ranging from the complex sensory networks in the internet of things to the smart-meters already wired into our walls, this new technological infrastructure is increasingly being offered as the future of modern metropolitan development.

Traditionally, advocates of smart cities have used crises as a catalyst to promote their agenda. Cisco, one of the key players in the industry, have previously claimed that “cities and communities around the world face intractable challenges.” With society gripped by problems such as the climate crisis and austerity, smart cities position themselves as the innovative plug that can fill the gap of a structurally defunct state.

Such a move echoes notions of “technological solutionism” espoused by Evgeny Morozov. This worldview posits that complex social problems can be fixed by algorithmic optimisation. After years of “techlash”, technology giants are aiming to reframe their role in the world as the providers of public goods, the providers of solutions to problems. Here, freedom is given not as a right, but as a service.

This is where the coronavirus represents the opportunity this nexus of power has been waiting for. Populations are going to be extremely worried about not only this virus, but the risks of future public health crises. In particular, city-dwellers will be concerned that they cannot return to their melting pot of economic and cultural activities unless states get a hold on their epidemiological futures.

Here, smart city technology could easily go hand in hand with track and trace applications currently being rolled out across the world. Many people will happily offer healthcare information and data in exchange for ‘security’ from the periphery.

Now, this is not to say that there are not benefits to be reaped from some of these solutions. Indeed, in states of emergency, many democratic norms (such as approaches to privacy and voting) can be suspended in order to ensure the long-term security of society. It is clear however, that the suspension of these norms can sometimes be incredibly tricky to reverse.

If contact tracing apps end up being a great success, companies and states will push for further use of these technologies. After all, with the trauma of lockdown, death and economic turmoil fresh in the public mind, society will never know whether a potentially even deadlier disease is around the corner. Rather than a return to normal, new norms may be set.

Google have wanted to move into the market for healthcare for a while. Its offering of coronavirus PCR tests required the exchange of serious amounts of healthcare data, enabling the company to use this data in the sale of products that have nothing to do with health at all, let alone Covid-19.

Sidewalk Labs, the smart city initiative set-up by Google, have already instructed various city municipalities to share real-time public transport data with ride-sharing platforms such as Uber. It is not a stretch to see healthcare and other personal data being exchanged between the state and platform monopolies under the grounds of security, efficiency and innovation.

IBM, another organisation in the smart city game, claimed that the main purpose of their movement is “data capture and control”. Turning the city into an endless flow of data streams enables a much more pernicious form of algorithmic governmentality; an apolitical rationality that seeks to use big data and cybernetic networks as an alternative to modern politics.

Smart city rhetoric is already reacting to the pandemic. ABI Research, a strategic tech consultancy, have recently suggested AI-based remote temperature sensing and the use of smartphone data crowdsourcing to location track as a response to the coronavirus.

But it isn’t just data captured, territory is too. The same report promoted drones to help enforce social distancing rules. Jathan Sadowski has provided a lucid examination of the Domain Awareness System; a joint venture between the NYPD and Microsoft which claims to utilise “the largest networks of cameras, license plate readers, and radiological sensors in the world.” The system is built with Homeland Security funds under an “anti-terrorism” mandate.

However, the DAS’s surveillance extends far beyond the obviously ‘criminal’, including data as varying as feeds from radiation detectors that are sensitive enough to pick up recent chemotherapy in passing bodies. Furthermore, the technology is sophisticated enough to recall up to five years’ worth of stored metadata and undefined ‘environmental data’ in its continually mined databases.

Such military-style technologies could be used to quell many forms of protest – including the anti-racism protests similar to the ones against George Floyd’s death. Some US states have already announced they are using contact tracing to track protestors. If these techniques manifest in punishment, algorithmic deterrence may be embedded further into transport and policing systems, often in a manner which exacerbates structural injustice.

There could be many useful features when it comes to tracking pandemics, but this doesn’t imply that smart city technologies are a silver bullet for other public health problems. Tracking your temperature for Covid-19 reasons can lead to a general assessment of your overall health and then the deprivation of many services if workers refuse to engage in tracing or are outside a particular health distribution.

This displays further echoes of solutionism. Here, the technology informs the policy, rather than the policy informing the technology. A solutionist approach spells out some major problems for those of us that want to create a just and prosperous world.

Rather than rethinking the world of work or the amount of mental health professionals available to people, mindfulness apps will be the new currency of healthcare provision. Instead of changing the way that housing is provided and property taxed, the smarthome will limit the amount spent on heating.

The city will help to accelerate these tendencies. A structure which has historically offered protection from outsiders, the smart city will reimagine this form of protection in a biological cast.

Cities such as Barcelona have tried to construct alternatives to this development. Occupy activist-turned-mayor Ada Colau has shifted the direction of the smart city project in the Catalan capital. Greater focus is now on citizen participation, rather than financial interests.

However, it will take far more than just a few radical leaders to change tune when it comes to cities as the site of surveillance. The wheels are already in motion, and Covid-19 may well fast-forward such an urban development at break-neck speeds.