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Singapore’s ‘city brain’ project is groundbreaking -- but what about privacy?

Matt Hamblen | Dec. 13, 2016
Aggregating data on traffic, weather, government and elder services aims to make citizens' lives better -- but potentially less private

In many cities, officials are already saying that they plan to monitor crowds and individuals only by detecting shapes and sizes of crowds with video sensors, rather than using facial-recognition software to detect individual faces. Such data could help determine, for example, whether a crowd is so big that it would spill into the street, putting pedestrians or bus and auto drivers at risk. While the use of cameras to detect crowds is already commonplace, newer video sensors can use high-definition images that can recognize license plates, faces and other details.

Whatever city leaders say, however, it is obvious that as systems advance, a city brain could eventually be upgraded to be more or less intrusive on personal privacy, depending on the city's leadership at the time and the changing laws of the country (as happened recently in Turkey). The age-old question of trust in government comes into play.

"Of course, there will be loss of privacy or, worst case, the chance of data being hacked," says Jacqueline Heng of the highly centralized data stores used in city brains. "This is not just a Singapore problem; it's a global problem," says Heng, a Gartner analyst based in Singapore who studies smart city programs. Many of the technologies a person is likely to see at a smart city summit anywhere in the world -- intelligent cameras, facial recognition and vehicle identification, to name just a few -- can be invasive, she adds. "Any government must still enforce certain laws to prevent misuse."

Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that evaluates civil and political freedoms in more than 150 countries every year, found Singapore to be "partly free" in 2016, with a 19 out of 40 rating for political rights and a 32 out of 60 rating for civil liberties.

At issue: Trust

While many have considered Singapore's government authoritarian in the past, recent interviews with residents and business officials indicate those constituents believe the government today has a far greater awareness of the privacy rights of citizens. Heng adds, "Does the public expect -- and to some level trust -- the government to not misuse the data? Yes."

steve leonard
Steve Leonard

Minister Puthucheary says the government takes the trust of its citizens seriously. "Expectations are very high of the performance of government or a business here," he says. "That trust is earned, and we need to work hard to get that."

Steve Leonard, chief executive of SG-Innovate, a new government entity taking a multi-pronged approach to promoting Singapore's tech innovations, says "the protection of data and the privacy of each person is a very clear mandate." For example, there is a high level of attention being paid to protecting data related to a public genome research in Singapore that incorporates an abundance of sensitive private and public genome research, Leonard says.

 

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