Ominous Omission of Ethics in Smart Cities

The article Contextual Sensing: Integrating Contextual Information with Human and Technical Geo-Sensor Information for Smart Cities by Sagl, Resch, and Blascke (2015) was certainly an interesting read.  They begin by addressing the idea of context as both a means of analyzing data and a consideration for data collection.  Followed by looking at the human-environment-technology relationship that is essential to the development of smart citizens, and ultimately smart cities.  They also address the geospatial aspects through context aware analysis approaches and finish with the future of smart city development.

Though Sagl et al. do mention many challenges associated to building smart cities, I was surprised at the ominous omission of ethics in the entire discussion.  The closest they come to the concept of ethics was when mentioning the lack of non-nadir remote sensing technologies (basically drones) that are not allowed in urban environments “for good reasons” (17023).  I find the idea of employing smart-citizens or people-as-sensors as the main means of data collection very interesting but ethically questionable, especially when any information being recorded is not voluntarily disclosed.  I recognize this is already happening in great magnitude in the private sector, particularly with regards to social media and advertising.  The fact of the matter is the majority of people involved in these exchanges are extremely unaware of their participation.  In order for this to be developed in a more ethical way, information collected should remain non-disclosed to any third parties and used solely to increase the QoL of the citizens.  This may seem obvious and easy to enforce, however, I fear the grey area is easy to manipulate; for example should a third party studying movement in a rainstorm be granted access to mobile tracking by all local phone companies if they are working to increase  urban mobility? The argument could go both ways.  I guess the question becomes how willing is the public to disclose private information in the hopes of building better, healthy living environments?



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