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“Smart City” Technologies Can Improve Local Services If Governments Balance Privacy and Innovation Interests

WASHINGTON— Smart cities can improve residents’ quality of life by collecting data and using analytics to manage public transportation, improve traffic, and even better address crime. But to maximize those benefits and maintain public trust, local governments will need to balance the interests of innovation and privacy, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy.

ITIF analyzes the legitimate and overblown privacy concerns stemming from municipal data collection and provides recommendations for federal, state, and local policymakers to make smart cities a reality.

“Data collection powers smart cities and communities, yet privacy issues continue to stall progress,” said Ashley Johnson, a senior policy analyst at ITIF and the author of the report. “Cities and communities need to balance the cybersecurity risks, commercial use of data, and potential government surveillance against other more prevalent concerns like public safety, sustainability, the beneficial uses of data, and cost.”

The report explores the various applications of data collection for smart cities, highlighting how government services ranging from the energy grid and water management to trash cans and lighting can best utilize smart technologies. Johnson details how these applications can generate cost and time savings, as well as increase productivity, public health, and safety. Smart city technologies can even help cities and communities address climate change by reducing their emissions.

However, privacy advocates have concerns over smart cities and communities that share data with private partners as a cost-defraying tool, or worry that communities will engage in government surveillance of individuals. Johnson argues the cities and communities that balance safety and privacy, instead of sacrificing one in favor of the other, will reap the benefits of these new and emerging technologies, while other cities that utilize blanket bans will fall behind.

The report offers the following recommendations:

  • Cities and communities should prioritize cybersecurity, such as by setting high security requirements for procuring Internet-connected devices, encrypting smart city data, conducting regular risk assessments, and transitioning to cloud computing.
  • Cities and communities should engage in vendor management when partnering with private companies to provide smart city applications.
  • State lawmakers should regulate law enforcement data collection.
  • Cities and communities should anonymize any personal data they collect to reduce the potential threat to individuals’ privacy.
  • Cities and communities should not require third parties to turn over sensitive personal data about their users as a condition of operating in the city.

“Ultimately, Congress needs to pass comprehensive federal data privacy legislation,” said Johnson. “That would protect all Americans while allowing room for data-driven innovations, including smart city applications."

Read the report.


The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized by its peers in the think tank community as the global center of excellence for science and technology policy, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress.

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