SURVEILLANCE“Smart” Tech Coming to a City Near You

Published 27 April 2023

The data-driven smart tech trend extends far beyond our kitchens and living rooms. Will real-time sensors and data offer new solutions to the challenges cities face, or just exacerbate existing inequalities?

If you own an internet-connected “smart” device, chances are it knows a lot about your home life.

If you raid the pantry at 2 a.m. for a snack, your smart lights can tell. That’s because they track every time they’re switched on and off.

Your Roomba knows the size and layout of your home and sends it to the cloud. Smart speakers eavesdrop on your every word, listening for voice commands.

But the data-driven smart tech trend also extends far beyond our kitchens and living rooms. Over the past 20 years, city governments have been partnering with tech companies to collect real-time data on daily life in our cities, too.

In urban areas worldwide, sidewalks, streetlights and buildings are equipped with sensors that log foot traffic, driving and parking patterns, even detect and pinpoint where gunshots may have been fired.

In Singapore, for example, thousands of sensors and cameras installed across the city track everything from crowd density and traffic congestion to smoking where it’s not allowed.

Copenhagen uses smart air quality sensors to monitor and map pollution levels.

2016 report from the National League of Cities estimates that 66% of American cities had already invested in some type of ‘smart city’ technology, from intelligent meters that collect and share data on residents’ energy or water usage to sensor-laden street lights that can detect illegally parked cars.

Proponents say the data collected will make cities cleaner, safer, more efficient. But many Americans worry that the benefits and harms of smart city tech may not be evenly felt across communities, says Pardis Emami-Naeini, assistant professor of computer science and director of the InSPIre Lab at Duke University.

That’s one of the key takeaways of a survey Emami-Naeini and colleagues presented April 25 at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2023) in Hamburg, Germany.

Nearly 350 people from across the United States participated in the survey. In addition, the researchers conducted qualitative interviews with 21 people aged 24 to 71 from underserved neighborhoods in Seattle that have been prioritized for smart city projects over the next 10 to 15 years.

The study explored public attitudes on a variety of smart city technologies currently in use, from air quality sensors to surveillance cameras.