Experts Discuss Smart Cities and the Protection of Citizen’s Right to Privacy

18 May 2021

The Geneva Human Rights Platform and the Geneva Cities Hub hosted an online panel at the WSIS Forum 2021 to discuss privacy in the context of cities’ increased digitalization.

Attended by municipal authorities and communities from around the globe interested in learning more about the privacy challenges related to the digitalization of cities, the debate – moderated by Dr Jonathan Andrew, former Associate Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy – brought together a diverse panel with in-depth experience in smart cities projects from North and South America and Europe.

Panelists shared insights from their collaboration with government, citizens, municipal authorities, and businesses to deliver public infrastructure and services leveraging digital innovations that improve the quality of life for populations in urban areas.

The Need to Consult Citizens from the Beginning

Reviewing the impact of projects in several US cities – including Boston, Seattle and Chicago – Ben Green from the University of Michigan highlighted the need to engage citizens from the beginning, before defining the mandate and scope of the projects. Such consultations are key to get citizens’ views about the necessity of developing new technologies and their relevance to addressing the underlying social welfare problems they are supposed to tackle.

Lorena Santana Reuss, representing Do! Smart Cities from Santiago, Chile, also underscored the importance of engagement with communities, particularly in relation to those groups that may be marginalized or excluded from debates. Their participation is key to ensure that their concerns – notably in relation to privacy and data protection – are taken into account.

Online event view

The Key Role of Regulatory Frameworks and Human Rights Standards

Katharina Candel-Haug, Strategy Manager at Stadtwerke München, also noted how the new data protection regulatory framework in Europe (mainly the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)) has a major impact on the planning and delivery of projects by municipalities, citing her experience in developing mobility solutions for the city districts in Munich.

The audience had the opportunity to put forward their questions to the panel and ask for their insights and predictions regarding the evolution of smart cities. Ben Green, drawing on his work with American cities and the implementation of Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives highlighted his concerns that ‘tech solutionism’ could give rise to ill-considered projects that missed the opportunities to deliver meaningful improvements in public services while protecting the fundamental rights of those they intend to benefit. Responding to a question by the audience on the viability of universal international guidelines, Katharina Candel-Haug underscored how in Germany a collection of national, regional and local standards provided a key framework for safeguarding citizens’ human rights and ensuring projects met the necessary specification for compliance.

‘This panel succeeded in kickstarting the debate and generating further interest in how smart cities projects should integrate a human rights-based approach to their development and implementation’ says Kamelia Kemileva, Executive Manager of the Geneva Cities Hub.

‘We hope that this panel is the first step in cities’ engagement on this issue and that this initiative will foster stronger links between municipalities that can facilitate the emergence of a broad network of cities to share their knowledge and best practices’ underlines Felix Kirchmeier, Executive Director of Geneva Human Rights Platform.

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