Anonymity in Smart Urbania

Is vanishing obscurity in modern cities taking us closer to a data utopia or a dystopian version of urban life where preserving our privacy is no longer a choice?

Tuhin Sen_SS

A Whirr of wheels interjected by sharp jabs of heels on a desolate sidewalk, in the dead of the night, are often the defining sounds of many a modern metropolis. No other sets of sounds, perhaps, have the same ability to capture the very soul of modern cities with their constant influx of migrants matched only by constant departures. Between the arrivals and the departures lie birth, growing up, education, love, heartbreaks, generosity, avarice, creativity, plagiarism, courage, cowardice, miracles and the cardiac monitor flatlining. Chronicles of evolution of cities, both on celluloid and in print, wax eloquent about how cities celebrate a sense of community amid the flurry of arrivals and departures. This is true of cities across time, space, reality and imagination. For example, Fritz Lang’s dystopian classic ‘Metropolis’, made in 1927 and set in 2026, celebrates community identities of rulers and the ruled in the backdrop of urbania. At one of the polar ends of the spectrum, spanning community bonds and individual identities, is a state of being that is fostered by modern cities. It is the state of being anonymous in a sea of humanity. Cities are a celebration of anonymity within communities—a paradox that gives rise to an inexorable tension, which smart urbania will have to grapple with in the backdrop of a growing hunger for personal data on the part of city authorities, civil society and businesses. On the grid or off it? Equating anonymity with loneliness or desolation betrays an inadequate understanding of anonymity. It is a desired state of being, the result of exercising the choice to go off the grid. Going off the grid, as a concept or as an exercise of choice, attains significance in the context of smart urbania. Will anybody, then – in the smart urbania of now or of the future – have the ability to go off-the-grid? Aren’t smart cities premised on the fact that data-gathering technology of every possible definition will disgorge exabyte-scale data for municipal officials to crunch? At that level of data density and granularity, what are the chances of a citizen being able to go off the grid? Consider those heels on the sidewalk for a moment. Street corner cameras and Optical Character Recognition technology can identify who is in that set of heels. The lady’s mobile data can give away her location. She reaches an ATM and pulls out money, where her location data gets linked to her financial data. A large transfer is identified on the account that was just accessed. At a higher level of data linkage, her consumption history can be accessed. Her income tax filings can be tracked. What if something does not add up? The drilldown intensifies. Medical records are accessed. A predictive analytics suite may foresee something ominous, based on her personal data. It’s not difficult, from here, to fast forward to Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Minority Report’!   tuhin Hey, you can’t hide your life away Enter smart urbania with its technology, systems, devices and a mindset that seeks voluminous citizen data. The arguments for this are many: efficient targeting of utilities, public services, budgetary allocation security, safety, and an overall improvement in governance. The operative word is efficiency. What will efficiency look like in the life of smart urbania’s citizens in the years ahead? Innovations in the private sector could hold some clues. Soon enough, more citizens will bank with a Moven Bank (US), a Jibun Bank (Japan) or a Fidor Bank (Germany). Investors will log into Zanbato (US). For citizens looking for a quick loan, there will be Zopa (UK). For those willing to lend, there will be platforms such as Smava (Germany) and Prosper (US). How about Amazon Mechanical Turk (US) for labour market opportunities sans borders? A quick comparative assessment of costs for diagnostic tests will be available on CureQue (India). Such platforms will soon be repositories of sensitive personal data, which raises vexing questions regarding the governance of smart urbania. At no point in time in the history of mankind, have governments, business and civil society been privy to such a deluge of sensitive personal data from multifarious sources. Between the private sector and the government, smart urbania will know a lot more about its citizens. Insurance companies, for example, will know a lot more about citizens beyond what they choose to reveal. Seemingly innocuous social media posts could be damaging for a potential job seeker. A spurned lover, with a criminal past, may easily geo-locate an ex on a desolate sidewalk. Will there be institutional mechanisms to safeguard sensitive personal data? Will there be legal frame works in place governing that data? At the supra-national level, the United Nations Global Data Pulse is busy discussing how Big Data could be ‘harnessed safely and responsibly as a public good’. It is a ‘flagship innovation initiative’ by the UN, centred around Big Data and how it can be harnessed for human well-being. The Global Pulse Data Privacy Advisory Group recently held its first in-person meeting where issues like the requirement of consent, data accuracy, principle of proportionality and necessity were discussed. The message was clear: sensitive personal data warrants responsible governance. Honey, will I get hacked? A scenarios perspective Seen through a scenarios lens, smart urbania will grapple with issues of citizen support for big data and a consequent legislative push to make it a reality. Currently, it is hard to tell which way smart urbania will go. Data utopia, as a preferred scenario, is attractive. In such a scenario, how will citizens react to a data breach? One breach may mean loss of passwords, vital municipal records, health records and even an entire identity. Of course, smart urbania will deploy technology to prevent this and protect anonymity. But then does the word ‘Anthem’ sound a discordant note? A data breach that compromised about 80 million users’ personal details, including social security numbers, could this be the warning bell for things that are yet to come?

Tags assigned to this article:
big data gdn magazine metropolitan smart cities tuhin sen urban