The potential benefits of smart city technologies are numerous. By becoming “smart,” a city can not only deliver more and better services with greater efficiency, it can capture the cultural caché of the “tech-savvy” label. What city leader would not want the economic growth that comes with a thriving startup community? Everyone wants to be the next Silicon Valley or Seattle, and these regions want to maintain their status as hot tech hubs. So smart city initiatives race ahead in Pittsburgh, New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Atlanta, and elsewhere, driving innovation to bring the American city into the 21st Century. However, privacy advocates are voicing concerns over some of the privacy risks and other unintended consequences that can crop up with smart city programs.
The purpose of this essay is not to deny the benefits of smart city initiatives or argue against their implementation. Rather, it seeks to help policy makers avoid problems by identifying them early on, before they become baked into smart city systems. It cautions them to adopt the “front page test” when evaluating potential projects. To make this point, the essay posits hypothetical headlines that distill the way privacy risks from smart cities can capture the public’s imagination. It also highlights common assumptions and mistakes that give rise to these privacy and other risks and urges policy makers to reframe the way they think about privacy and smart cities.