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Data Privacy and Protection in the Age ​of SMART Cities

In his recent presentation at the Cyber Bytes Foundation monthly networking event, Dr. Indu Singh spoke about the challenges that have arisen as a result of new technology and data collection. In the age of SMART cities—an urban environment that uses sensors to collect and manage data through the Internet of Things (IoT) for efficiency and convenience—Dr. Singh shares insight and next steps for the road ahead.  

The rapid emergence of new technology has expanded capabilities, efficiencies, conveniences and data collection. Like a classic lifecycle, the data collected informs new technologies, further expands capabilities and efficiencies and intuitively creates more conveniences—all while more data continues to be generated. There are several unintended consequences that come with data collection, and the ripple effects are not always known or noticed right away. For cyber security experts like Dr. Indu Singh, among all the positive and negative impacts, one concern is paramount: data privacy.  

Dr. Singh is a leading expert on cyber security, SMART Cities, technology and business strategy and international business development. As the Chief Scientist at OST, Inc., Dr. Singh leads a team that focuses on cyber security and SMART projects such as SMART cities, SMART airports and SMART health. Prior to his time at OST, Inc, he served as President and CEO of Planet Defense, LLC based in Washington, D.C. and in several lead roles for Los Alamos Technical Associates (LATA). Prior to joining LATA, Dr. Singh served as Director and Managing Partner at Deloitte Consulting, LLC where he managed Systems Engineering and Global Security Practice. His published works include: SMART Cities of Today and Tomorrow, Digital Defense: A Cyber Security Primer and Safe City: Living Free in a Dangerous World

Managing data collection—responsibly.

“There is a great deal of digital transformation taking place at the societal and global levels. It’s a very exciting time,” Dr. Singh said, “because most of it is really driven by new technology.”  

As we build SMART everything and the IoT, devices will collect tremendous amounts of data. “Most people are completely unaware of who is collecting the data, how it is being collected, where it is being stored and how it will be used.” In this unknown territory, confusion and fear is a natural response, Dr. Singh explained. The lack of clarity raises more questions and without answers people are right to feel sensitive about data collection and their privacy.

Building trust before building projects.

According to Dr. Singh, we are currently in a state of confusion in terms of digital privacy and the rights of the individual. The answer, he says, is building trust in digital systems. 

Dr. Singh explained that the first step in earning that trust is to clarify the distinction between the provider and the user. “We currently have an open architecture and some of the technologies have the ability to gather information when we don’t even know about.” Dr. Singh referred to the example of facial recognition and the questions it raises: What happens to that data? Who owns it? Who is using it? Where is it stored? Is someone going to manipulate it? 

It’s not always simple to make those distinctions, Dr. Singh explained, because most of the projects are jointly funded and controlled. He referred to the example of a project that has been halted and another that has been disabled. In Toronto’s Google SMART City, important questions are only now being raised, well after the project is underway. In San Francisco, a ban was passed on facial recognition surveillance, disabling the city’s investment of millions of dollars in new technology. The new ordinance prohibits the use by the city departments and created a requirement for approval before further acquisition of surveillance technology by the city. San Francisco may be the first major U.S. city to pass a ban on facial recognition technology but it’s actually the seventh oversight specifically regarding surveillance in municipalities in the state of California.   

“What I’m suggesting,” Dr. Singh said, “is that when we build these SMART cities, we start by building the confidence and trust level of our citizens. Our cities will be more successful if we take steps to safeguard against breaking digital trust.” 

The issue that has emerged is the lack of privacy policies to govern the use of new technology. As technology rapidly evolves, a gap widens between the technology that exists and people’s ability to adopt or adapt to it.  Sociologists call it a “cultural lag”. The European Commission is known for having the strongest data policies in the world. “It’s a good model,” Dr. Singh said, “but what works for Europe does not work for America.” And within the U.S., each of the states are enacting their own privacy laws. California took the lead a few months ago and that state now has laws. There is a lot of confusion and conflict in America with this issue of privacy vs. new technology. Legislators are very concerned because we don’t want policies within each state to end up conflicting with one another. At this point, Dr. Singh said, the result is very little action: “We need to have new, well-defined policy laws that build the digital trust, but does not impede the use of new technology. There needs to be a balance between the two.” 

Defining data privacy…contractually speaking.

The legal aspect of data privacy presents yet another challenge. Most SMART cities are a combination of a public and private partnership. Funding drives that partnership, but necessity will be the mother of [future] invention. The challenge, however, lies in anticipating the legal ramifications and sufficiently preparing for them. 

“50% of the world’s population is living in urban areas today,” Dr. Singh said. “And it’s projected to rise to 73% within the next 50 years. We need to build SMART cities precisely because of these figures.” 

Dr. Singh reflected on how these statistics represent the transformation taking place in every aspect of our lives, with many changes driven by new technology. He offered the example of how, at the lowest level, social media has changed how families communicate with one another and how teens relate to their peers and friends: “These are not technological changes. These are cultural changes, and they are not going anywhere.” 

As technology impacts culture and culture impacts society and society shapes law and government, we find ourselves in uncharted territory with ownership, entitlement and rights to data. Dr. Singh highlighted the fact that since SMART cities are built primarily by private funding, the question is, is that private entity the vendor? Are they defined as the owner simply because they funded it? Who are they and what does that entitle them to? “These things have to be contractually defined and agreed upon,” Dr. Singh said. 

“Privacy is related to data protection and the entity that owns the data is obligated to protect it. Above all else, data privacy must be three things: well-defined, verifiable and based on trust.” 

Role of a Chief Data Officer

In response to the rise in data collection and the increasing concern for privacy, a few cities have begun to appoint chief data officers. SMART cities are naturally going to be the biggest producer of big data. According to Dr. Singh, there are two primary interests at hand: first, to use the data in a positive way and second, to allocate proper budgeting and funds. 

“Data is the lifeblood of a SMART city. We need to look at how big data is actually protected. With multiple databases and servers gathering data, there needs to be someone responsible to governing and protecting it.” 

Dr. Singh went on to say that currently, in most cities, there are multiple owners. There is an enormous amount of data and it’s not well-established who is responsible for it. “What is that saying? If everyone is responsible,  no one is responsible. Well, one person needs to be.” 

There’s a new trend emerging, in both the government and the corporate world, in defining the role of a chief data officer or CDO and budgeting for the position. Dr. Singh said that the mid-range and large cities will especially need someone in this role. He was pleased that the commonwealth of Virginia was one of the first states to appoint a chief data officer and believes other states will soon follow suit. “That process really begins in grooming and training the talent we currently have in the marketplace. Universities have started new programs and the younger generation will fill these roles of gathering, analyzing, managing, protecting and storing data,” Dr. Singh said.

Why SMART Cities?

Dr. Singh spoke about the need for SMART cities as the world’s population moves to urban areas and new challenges and issues are raised. The four challenges he specified were: job growth, environmental protection, information management and security enhancement. Dr. Singh explained that SMART city architecture facilitates job growth, creates efficiencies and capabilities that protect the environment and allows for the enhancement and security of public service. “As a society, we expect our government to do more than ever, but we don’t want to pay more for it.” 

According to Dr. Singh, SMART cities will enable enhanced services while cutting costs. He used the example of intelligent lighting which has yielded a proven 60% savings on energy costs. When it comes to the responsive management of our resources, we’ve only just begun to see the impact.

Dr. Singh explained that thus far, the bulk of the work and funding has been aimed at research and development. Looking ahead, he sees a shift toward investing in infrastructure. And as public and private partnerships continue to form to forge these building projects, he sees a unique capability in the United States. “Technological advancements are fueled by capitalism in extraordinary ways. The success of SMART cities will depend on the trust of its citizens.”

Join us at our next Cyber Bytes Networking Event at 1000 Corporate Drive, Suite 119, Stafford, VA 22554, featuring cyber experts like Dr. Indu Singh. Save your seat. 

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