Dr. Ann Cavoukian is a three-term Information & Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada and creator of Privacy by Design (PbD), a framework that seeks to proactively embed privacy into the design specifications of information technologies, networked infrastructure and business practices, thereby achieving the strongest protection possible. This month, Admap puts the spotlight on data ethics, and Dr. Cavoukian warns of the potential privacy loss as we develop Smart Cities.

The late Alan Westin stated that in a truly privacy-respectful society, individuals are able to control the uses of their personal information – namely, the ability to determine for one’s self, when, how, and to what extent one’s personally identifiable information is communicated/disclosed to others (Westin, 1967). This means for example, that in voluntarily sharing personal information with another entity or organization, the individual can specify the purposes that the information may be used, as well as specifying that it must be destroyed after such use.

Digital staring

Our lives, in an increasing manner, are lived on a digital landscape, with surveillance of our digital lives analogous to digital staring. In the real “analog” world, our species evolved to consider staring as a form of aggression, or at least signalling the threat of aggression. It is generally considered “invasive” to constantly stare at a stranger. In fact, the term “scopophobia” is an anxiety disorder characterized by a morbid fear of being seen or stared at by others. Authoritarian states use “staring” at their population, via massive collections of personal information, as a natural mechanism to engender fear and concomitant control. In itself that is unacceptable, but the unintended consequence is that when people are in the mind-set of fear and anxiety, their imagination is restricted, making it difficult for them to think creatively, namely “out-of-the-box.”

Surveillance tends to shrink cognitive bandwidth. Our prosperity as a society is based on the innovation and creativity of individuals which is the process of crystalizing our imagination into products, services and art forms. It is challenging to think “out-of-the box” when you are concerned about being pervasively surveilled. One need only contrast the innovative and prosperous West Germans in the decades after WWII with the impoverished East (Stasi) Germans. Surveillance may be considered to constitute not only a threat of aggression, but also yielding the unintended consequence of diminished innovation and prosperity – a truly lose/lose proposition.

Smart cities or surveillance cities?

As we develop Smart Cities, there is a real danger that this will lead to excessive surveillance. Therefore, we must securely de-identify all data at the source. Without this, citizens will not have any informational self-determination. They will not know when their data is being collected by the various systems and sensors that will run 24/7 in smart cities. If they don't know what data is collected, they are unable to give, or revoke consent. This is why you have to de-identify everything right away.

It’s vital that we build systems that effectively and efficiently honour the clauses in the constitutions of free nations. I’m not the only one who talks about the concern for privacy in smart cities. I’m on the International Council of Smart Cities and I assure you, most of the smart cities that are emerging are becoming cities of surveillance, not of privacy.

What is needed is to decentralize personal data and place it in the custody and “ownership” of the data subject; this will give people the ability to choose how their personal data will be used by organizations. We can protect both security and privacy. It will need to be truly innovative, such as SmartData, but it must not be one to the exclusion of the other.

Privacy forms the foundation of our freedom: Without privacy, we will not remain a free and civilized society. “Civilization is the progress towards a society of privacy” wrote Ayn Rand in the Fountainhead. The loss of privacy is the regression towards an uncivilized society, devoid of freedom.