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5G and Smart Cities: A Slippery Slope Towards Mass Surveillance?

November 8, 2019

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5G technology, the next big revolution in mobile connectivity, aims at providing better mobile broadband connectivity and speed for a wider range of customers. While 5G has the potential to enable fundamentally new applications and dramatically improve the quality of life of citizens living in Smart Cities, the contentious privacy aspect should not be ignored. 

What Is 5G Technology and How It Will Make Smart Cities Even Smarter

According to a recent market research report, the global 5G enterprise market is anticipated to be around $2.2 billion by 2020 and reach around $19.5 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of slightly above 54.7% between 2020 and 2025. According to Markets and Markets Research, the 5G market is expected to grow from $528 million in 2019 to $3509 million by 2025, a CAGR of 37.1% during the forecast period.

5G will create unified platforms for all connected devices, allowing them to simultaneously exchange data. Furthermore, the new technology will have the capability to support a larger number of connected devices by utilizing different frequencies and even identify what type of device is connected. 5G networks will function more efficiently (fewer interruptions) and will also reduce battery consumption for all connected devices. According to security experts, 5G brings fast, real-time response to hazards. Instead of looking at the surveillance video after the fact, it can be viewed in real time for faster response in situations like fires, gunshots, or traffic accidents. Due to its much lower latency network, 5G is capable of supporting 100 times as many devices as 4G and it is 100 times faster. For example, a two-hour video downloads in six minutes over 4G, and only 3.5 seconds over 5G.

The main use case scenarios for smart cities include smart utilities, smart parking solutions, smart traffic solutions to control traffic flow, smart public transportation, smart automated street lighting, smart waste management for optimized collection scheduling, smart environmental protection for real time monitoring of air, water and soil quality, smart public safety for real time tracking and monitoring of hazardous situations. License plate recognition and crowd monitoring are just two of the many use cases that caught the eye of data privacy experts. 

The Implementation of 5G: A Slippery Slope Towards Mass Surveillance?

Without a doubt, 5G will make smart cities even smarter, its main advantages being the higher speed, greater bandwidth, and wider coverage. However, while many of the prospects seem appealing on the surface, experts warn about the social and political threat that comes hand in hand with the contentious privacy aspect of future smart cities. 

According to McKinsey, digital solutions could improve some key urban quality-of-life indicators by 10–30 percent—numbers that translate into lives saved, reduced crime, shorter commutes, a lower health burden, and averted carbon emissions.

Governments hold tremendous amounts of highly personal data, and they are gathering more all the time. But now it may be shared with private-sectors partners without residents’ consent or placed on public platforms. The pushback in favor of privacy has been strong in Europe, but similar advocacy efforts are not always present in developing nations. Governments need to establish protocols for how city agencies handle and share data and safeguards for protecting the most sensitive data. Employees and the public alike need to be aware of the sensitivity of the data they touch. Another priority is ensuring that surveillance and data-gathering programs are conducted with transparency and are subject to democratic control. Putting a chief privacy officer in charge of these efforts city-wide can help, according to the same report.

Recently, Facebook and Google caught the public’s attention. Their handling of consumer data and their role as gatekeepers of communication are all under scrutiny, especially after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as the exposing of Google’s ideological biases by former employees. 

In September 2019, Waterfront Toronto, a smart city development by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has come under harsh criticism over privacy and data collection, resulting in numerous board members quitting the project. Roger McNamee, an early investor in Google and Facebook, told Toronto officials that the data obtained on users in this Quayside project has the ability “to replace democracy with algorithmic decision making” and “is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society”. 

There’s no doubt that 5G deployment is going to be a game-changer for future smart cities. But anything connected to the internet — anything that is going to generate data in ways we’ve not seen before — is going to create cybersecurity and data privacy concerns. Infringement on civil liberties cannot be taken lightly.