Today, in an interview with Insider, Boston’s senior infrastructure and energy planner Manuel Esquivel explained new plans to make Boston a more efficient and green city. One of these plans includes collecting data of the city to better understand the traffic flow of pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.
The surveillance measures include video cameras “to provide data on health, safety, and traffic,” data analysis platforms, and street sensors. The city collaborated with the internet conglomerate Verizon to create these “smart street” technologies.
Verizon has been reported to sell its customer’s data. In February of 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Communications Commission intended to fine Verizon — among other phone companies — hundreds of millions of dollars for selling customer’s real-time location data to companies that would utilize this data to track people.
Not only did they reportedly sell customer’s data, but they also have a sloppy record of protecting it. These companies would often sell to location data aggregators: companies that polish up people’s data to distribute it to marketers and search engines.
In 2019, it was revealed that virtually anyone could access instantaneous location data from Verizon customers through location data aggregators like Location Smart.
Though Verizon promised its customers a cessation of selling this information in 2018, a Vice report found the company continuing the practice half a year later.
Moreover, more recent articles reported on Verizon’s continued selling customer data to advertisers. This is the company our great city decided to collaborate with to install video cameras across our city, and sensors under our streets.
The response to this news may generally fall into two camps.
Some may feel frustrated that our private data is yet again being shared with a massive corporation without our consent or any guarantee of government protection of our privacy.
Others may be completely resigned to the fact that personal privacy is no longer a feasible reality in this digital era. We already signed away our rights to personal privacy when we made our first Facebook account or used google to search something up.
Even if our data and digital identity have been bought and sold a billion times over, how does that affect us in real-time?
What can we do other than despair at how little the government cares about these issues and our privacy?
This mindset can be likened to ignorance as bliss, but the great irony is that we are not ignorant anymore of how much of our personal lives we expose on the internet.
You as a private, non-influencer individual cannot profit from your digital existence. But big corporations can and have. This is an objectively terrifying truth but incredibly difficult to actually wrap one’s head around.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the possibility of personal privacy, this news announcement is significant because it signals the further emergence of surveillance out of the digital sphere and places it firmly into the real, physical spaces we traffic daily.
This, of course, comes with benefits. The data cameras and street sensors will collect will ostensibly be utilized to make streets safer in line with Boston Transportation Department’s Vision Zero plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2030.
Moreover, the regular use of technology generally makes life easier. Being able to pick up a meal or drink at the first digital-only Dunkin’, for instance, or the dream of maybe one day being able to get on the T without having to recharge one’s Charlie Card, may make one’s life easier — if they have a charged phone and a data plan. Moreover, digital-only services limit contact with other people, which is ultimately beneficial in a world still heavily plagued by the COVID-19 virus.
But any surface-level benefits must be weighed against the many consequences of these increasingly digitally-dependent urban designs, beyond the abstract and all-consuming issue of data privacy.
First, we must consider who these technologies may exclude. Though a 2017 study found that 90% of unhoused people had cell phones, they do not have stable access to WiFi, charging ports and data plans. Thus, digital-only restaurants like the new Dunkins may not only exclude unhoused people in regards to gaining access to their products but also remove an open space where they could previously have utilized the bathrooms or charged their phones.
Second, we must consider how these technologies may be utilized to replicate existing systemic inequalities like racism.
Though city officials have not explicitly stated that “smart street” cameras would be utilized to monitor crime, the stated intention to utilize these cameras for “health” and “safety” measures makes them viable options for future abuse of power.
Surveillance technologies are immutably shaped by the biases of the people who programmed them. Research from 2018 found that facial recognition surveillance technology misidentified Black women at a rate of 35%, while nearly always identifying white men correctly. In 2019, the federal government admitted in a report that facial recognition software does not work well on recognizing people of color or women and works best on white men’s faces.
Potential misidentifications could have devastating effects. A false identification could lead to a false arrest and imprisonment. In a criminal justice system rife with racism, police brutality and violence, this could have potentially deadly consequences.
Moreover, the American criminal justice system is a racist system that has been shown to disproportionately imprison Black and brown people. Any surveillance technology, regardless of its accuracy, would only further the devastating effects of this system.
This applies to areas beyond software. Boston Dynamics is a robotics design company that has worked with the U.S. military and the New York Police Department to produce surveillance and weapons equipment.
Last February, a video of a robotic dog that Boston Dynamics designed for the NYPD went viral, with many calling it unsettling. The NYPD eventually canceled its contract with Boston Dynamics, but these forms of robotic policing are nonetheless on the horizon. Robotic forms of policing could lead to further surveillance and police violence against communities of color.
The fully digital city is rapidly approaching, and it is reasonable to appreciate the potential benefits and luxuries it may bring with it.
But these luxuries will never be able to make up for the freedoms we will lose if we allow these kinds of technologies to go unsupervised or unchecked. They may introduce more problems than they solve.