Protecting Privacy in the Smart City

There’s a new sensor on the block. Or at least there could be, if you’re living in the urban jungle of a smart city.

For those not familiar with it, smart city is a term to describe a community that uses connected technologies to collect and analyze data to improve services for citizens. An example could be energy conservation sensors that dim the streetlights when no pedestrians or cars are around. Or a real-time parking app that maps out where the nearest available public parking spot can be found.

The possibilities of smart city projects may seem endless, but the need for strong privacy protections must be a constant. This was the message our office and privacy protection authorities from across the country recently delivered to the minister in charge of the Government of Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge. The challenge invites communities from across Canada to submit proposals for projects and compete for funding to make their smart city dreams a reality.

It’s very exciting stuff, but it’s important that we don’t get too carried away. While evidence-based decision-making has the potential to move us forward, personal privacy rights cannot be an afterthought. Smart city technologies can collect, use and generate large amounts of data. Without strong safeguards in place, this could include sensitive personal information. This information could be used to track people as they go about their daily activities or fall into unscrupulous hands as the result of a cyberattack.

The aim of the letter is to engage in conversation with the minister’s office about the privacy risks associated with smart city initiatives and to raise awareness about what can be done to mitigate those risks. We also want to ensure that if financial support is provided for smart city proposals, it is limited to those that will be carried out in a privacy-protective way. To help achieve this, Canada’s access and privacy offices have also collectively offered to support the development of selection criteria and the evaluation of project scoring in this area.

Some municipalities are already implementing smart city technologies, highlighting the need for leadership in ensuring the protection of privacy rights. Our office will continue to engage on this very important issue in the months ahead.


Brian Beamish

Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario


Additional resources

Smart Cities and Your Privacy Rights

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