Digital Cities Header

Private sensors in public spaces put democracy at risk, but cities are stepping up

Data-collecting devices are being deployed in physical public and semi private spaces in cities at an unprecedented speed, and cities often lack the knowledge about what sensors are being deployed or do not have the competences and capacity to address the privacy concerns they bring about. Physical public areas –town squares, pedestrian zones, shopping centres and bus stops– are increasingly subject to unfettered digitalisation, with commercial sensors tracking eye movements for feedback on digital advertisements, or cameras recognising faces in shopping centres.

Local authorities facing this challenge are raising questions regarding how to oblige private entities to respect privacy rights or how  to enforce and implement regulations, and are figuring out which are the main instruments that they have in hand to raise awareness and foster digital education among their citizens.

In the context of the EU week of cities and regions, the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights hosted “When Billboards stare back: How can cities reclaim the digital public space?”, a discussion around privacy rights’s infringement in public spaces, data regulation and  the role of cities in reclaiming the digital public space. The discussion was based on a report launched last spring by Nesta, the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights and the City of Amsterdam.

During the panel, the main recommendations made by the report were discussed, and the panel further elaborated on the impact of such data-collecting technologies on democracy and fundamental rights.

Paola Pierri, Director Research and Design at Democratic Society, highlighted that privacy infringement in public spaces endanger digital rights as well as the foundational principles of democracy. According to Pierri, cities need to promote more innovative and participatory systems, in which citizens’ rights are actively protected, and they need to prevent private entities from acting as intermediaries between local authorities and the citizens. 

Businesses and private entities, indeed, often identify data as a source of profit. This concern was raised by Daniel Sarasa, managing director of the city of Knowledge for the city of Zaragoza, who put emphasis on the responsibility that cities hold in protecting public spaces and avoiding their privatization. Legal frameworks such as the GDPR highlight the efforts of legislators in protecting data and privacy in public spaces. Sometimes, however, legislation is not sufficient, and cities also need to intervene through contractual clauses that oblige businesses to respect the needs of the digital society.

According to Simon Chignard, expert on data governance, cities need to tackle the issue of privacy in public spaces through a dual strategy: placing privacy protection as a priority of the local administration, and promoting digital literacy. Raising digital awareness is essential in making sure that citizens can also participate in the protection of their personal data and of privacy rights in public spaces. 

As both the report and the discussion highlight, there is still a long way to go in order to ensure digital rights are protected in public urban spaces. Cities, however, are already stepping up and leveraging their powers -and they are doing it in a collaborative manner through networks such as the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights.

Click on the image to watch the session


Read the report  here 

Watch the session here


Join us today!

Review the checklist of digital rights actions and apply to become a member

Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn