Skip to content

Does smart-city tech threaten democracy? –

Big surveillance ( By Wit Olszewski/

Does smart-city tech threaten democracy?

The rapid adoption of smart-city technology has given way to a number of unforeseen circumstances that could risk common civil liberties, says a report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Technology and Public Purpose Project.

Freedom in public spaces has served an integral role in the development of democracy, author Rebecca Williams argues. Amid the civil unrest during the summer of 2020, the San Diego Police Department used cameras embedded in smart streetlights to surveil protestors. This use of the cameras, which were originally promoted as a smart-city initiative to help with traffic control and air quality monitoring, sparked concerns about the covert ways in which smart-city technologies can be used.

The report focuses on hardware and software that can directly, or in combination with other data, cameras, location trackers and sensors that are common components of smart city projects, identify individuals. While these technologies have an inherent risk to individuals’ privacy, how the information is allowed to be used is of greater significance to society, says Williams.

In the report, Williams outlines five possible five dystopian trends for smart-city technology.

The first is totalitarianism, a system in which technology is deployed without considering the will of the people. The author suggests that if the government uses tracking tech without a democratic discussion or decision, it should be viewed as a totalitarian act. To avoid this, Williams encourages more governance and participatory input from community members, especially before officials and vendors decide what information is collected and how it can be used.

As smart cities increase surveillance, Williams also warns of panopticonism – a system of control that increases how often subjects are surveilled so much so that they assume they are always being watched. This erodes privacy and autonomy for individuals and risks overall security because of the massive amount of identifying data collected is vulnerable to data breaches and foreign adversaries, the report says.

Discrimination has long been discussed in the context of smart city technology. Facial recognition, the report states, has often been disproportionately used around the world to target specific segments of the population. Williams says this tendency to target minority groups, if it remains unchecked, could deepen divisions between governments and its marginalized communities.

Smart city technology may also usher society towards a more privatized government infrastructure, Williams suggests. She says this trend could displace public services, replace democracy with corporate decision-making and allow government agencies to shirk constitutional protections and accountability laws in favor of collecting more data. With corporations owning more digital assets, they would could control what information is collected and how it can be used.

Finally, smart cities reinforce technological solutionism, a phenomenon that sees political and moral issues as problems to be solved by technology. In smart cities, budgets are reprioritized to collect more data rather than provide material goods and services. In some cases, the cost of the technologies and data collection outweighs efficiency gains. Williams says large smart-city investments run the risk of locking cities into proprietary solutions, making it too expensive for cities to switch to a different vendor. 

To curb these potential problems, the report offers several recommendations. With regard to personally identifiable information, Williams suggests minimizing the collection and use of identifying data, imposing strict limits on law enforcement access and ending high-tech profiling.

Furthermore, to build a collective capacity to evaluate how smart-city technology impacts democracy, society must shift its focus beyond efficient solutions, the report suggests. Social challenges must be reframed around the material needs of communities rather than as government-led efforts to test how technology can support broader programming.

“Finally, to fortify old and new democratic spaces, we must imagine new ways of governing by the will of the people and develop new rights that serve those ends,” the report states. “To do this, we may need to rethink long-held frameworks that do not translate to the modern world. This will require robust and continuous dialogue and creative thinking about how technology relates to supporting the many and not the few.”

About the Author

Shourjya Mookerjee is an associate editor for GCN and FCW. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, and has written for Vox Media, Fandom and a number of capital-area news outlets. He can be reached at [email protected] – or you can find him ranting about sports, cinematography and the importance of local journalism on Twitter @byShourjya.