At a July 20 panel on smart cities, Fordham Law graduate Yoram Elkaim, vice president of legal for Google in Europe, Middle East, and Africa, asked, “In a smart city is there such a thing as anonymity anymore?”

“As a student here, we learned a lot about the right to privacy and the Fourth Amendment, and yet there is this paradox in the big city, where you are sharing so much of your space with others, but you also are still afforded anonymity,” he said during the panel event, part of the International Conference on Cyber Security held at Fordham Law and sponsored by Fordham and the FBI. “But in a smart city where there are all these sensors, is that a problem?”

Smart cities are generally defined as municipalities that use technology and data to ease movement, increase public health and safety, assist in disaster relief, and improve the environment.

As recently as just 10 years ago, the term conjured utopian dreams of environmental applications, tighter security, and swifter transportation, said Elkaim. But today the term takes on dark and sinister tones, such as surveillance and loss of freedom. As such, Elkaim’s question hit on a theme that was returned to again and again by the panel.

Better Explanation is Key

Robert W. Patterson, senior executive director for AT&T Business, Public Safety, and FirstNet, said part of the reason is that public and private sector leaders do not clearly explain the benefits of a smart city. This leads to the public believing that the data driving smart cities merely exposes them to cybersecurity breaches and more surveillance.

“The American public doesn’t necessarily understand what we do with the data or how we protect it. I think we all collectively need to do a better job of having that conversation so that people feel comfortable,” said Patterson. “Yes, you’re going to give up a little bit, but if you’re not doing anything wrong, you should feel comfortable that that [your data]is secure, and there are huge benefits to this.”

He used the example of an IoT (internet of things) device used by the oil and gas industry to turn on the gas, rather than sending out a person in a truck to turn it on.

“That’s a huge saving, but people don’t view that piece. They just think, ‘Hey, someone watched me go from the Bronx to Manhattan’—which is, quite frankly, irrelevant to 99.9% of what’s happening today.”

Tommi Laitio, the Bloomberg public innovation fellow at Johns Hopkins University, was the first executive director for culture and leisure in the city of Helsinki, Finland. He said the mayor dubbed his role the “director of fun.” He concurred with Patterson’s notion of refocusing public perception of what a smart city can be, adding that perhaps the word smart should be complemented with other words that describe the benefits of digital cities, such as “equal, creative, or fun.”

Time for Joy

“For me, a smart city should help create a place where you have more time for things that matter and less time for things that don’t matter,” he said. “The difficulty with all this marketing is that it feels like it’s not driven by the joy and pleasure in our lives.”

Matthew C. Fraser, chief technology officer and commissioner for the New York City Office of Technology and Innovation, succinctly summarized how data should be used in a smart city.

“It’s about using information to optimize interactions and move people all around cities a lot easier,” he said. “When I look at a smart city, it’s all-encompassing, around every interaction that a person has with the city.”

When the floor was opened for questions, an unconvinced member of the audience expressed a concern that government workers with access to such data might use them nefariously. Fraser responded by saying that the problem is certainly not limited to government. He said that the problem exists with any custodian of data, whether it’s in the government, private, or academic sector. He said that for New York City government workers, it means ensuring that the people using the data are using it in ways that align with their job description.

“What we start looking at there is—How do we create a baseline behavior [for that job]? What does a particular function across a particular geography look like? And what does normal look like? So, when someone deviates from that we can catch it and say, ‘This is an anomaly, let’s look at it.’ And what this all ties back to is having accountability in government, taking the responsibility to proactively audit the use of the technology tools that it has.”



Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.