Most Canadians skeptical about smart cities when it comes to their privacy

Earlier this year, a survey found that 88 per cent of Canadians are concerned on some level about their privacy when it comes to smart cities. Researcher Sara Bannerman says that governments need to step up when it comes to protecting people's data.

Survey says Canadians not quite ready for smart cities

Smart cities are on the rise, but the vast majority of Canadians say they're concerned about their privacy when it comes to these technologies. (Shutterstock/GaudiLab)

This story was originally published on April 26, 2019.

The idea of using technology and data to make cities and communities more efficient places to live has been on the rise for years. But despite the growing popularity of so-called "smart cities," the concept still leaves the vast majority of Canadians worried about their privacy.

Earlier this year, a survey found that 88 per cent of Canadians are concerned on some level about their privacy when it comes to smart cities. Almost a quarter said they were "extremely concerned."

Researchers at McMaster University and the University of Ottawa conducted the survey last fall, polling 1,011 Canadians across the country from different demographic subgroups. The results have a margin of error of 3.08.

"I was surprised at how high Canadians' level of concern actually was about their privacy in a smart city context," said Sara Bannerman, Canada Research Chair in Communication Policy and Governance at McMaster University and one of the authors of the study.

The survey also asked Canadians about their attitudes regarding the sale of their personal information for different purposes, such as targeted ads by companies, crime prevention and traffic and city planning.

The team also released an interactive map showing smart-city technologies across major cities in Canada.

Bannerman spoke to Spark host Nora Young about the results. Here is a part of their conversation.

Were there demographic or other differences that turned up in terms of people's differing levels of concern?

Yeah. One thing that wasn't surprising is that visible minority people and Indigenous people objected more strongly to the use of their personal information by police to prevent crime than did the average Canadian. So that's not surprising. 

Sarah Bannerman is Canada Research Chair in Communication Policy and Governance at McMaster University. (Ron Scheffler)

Forty-two percent of visible minority and Indigenous people versus 32 generally who objected entirely to the use of their personal information by police and crime prevention. That wasn't too surprising. 

How did things shake out in terms of how people felt about government uses of smart city data versus how they felt about private corporations using their data?

Well, it's interesting because people were actually much more accepting of public uses of their data, such as for traffic planning or city planning or policing, actually. 

It's interesting that they were more accepting or more comfortable with the use of their own personal information by police and crime prevention than they were they use of their personal information by private businesses to make those businesses more profitable. Significantly more comfortable. 

And so that tells me that private sector-led smart city initiatives are a far bigger concern for Canadians than our municipal initiatives and municipal-led initiatives.

It seemed to me from from my reading of the survey that one of the concerns that Canadians had was really to do with transparency and about having control over their data and how their data was used. 

Yeah. Canadians really want to have the right to view, delete and download their data. Eighty-nine to 96 per cent of Canadians want those rights.

They also want the ability to use public services anonymously. Seventy-seven per cent of Canadians agreed they should have that ability. 

And Canadians also objected to the idea that if they don't agree to a privacy policy, they should just not use that service. Many Canadians felt that the option to either agree or not use a service was not a adequate scenario. 

How does that square with the kind of control they actually have over their data?

Well, Canadians don't have the kind of control that they want to have. We often don't have the ability to view or delete or download our data. 

Often, although we technically may have the right to our personal information, when it's held by private companies, often private companies are not responsive to requests for our personal data. And I think that's that's a real problem and that's something that should be addressed by municipal smart city policies and legislation more generally, and by businesses policies and the building of their technology to make that data accessible and correctable and viewable and downloadable. 

So in light of this survey what kinds of recommendations would you have for cities that may be considering smart city plans or perhaps companies that may be looking at partnering with cities?

My team thinks that smart city initiatives should be government led, that government should be in the driver's seat, not private companies, that Canadians have a much greater level of confidence in government-led initiatives and in public type uses of their data.

We think that privacy watchdogs should be involved at an early stage of the design of those policies and that privacy law should be strengthened. We think there should be some no-go zones, things that shouldn't be collected in a smart city context -- children's data and the data of youth. 

We think that the sale of personal data should not be allowed, that targeted ads should be opt in, not opt out. And that sensitive data like biometric data just shouldn't be collected. And there should be some proceed-with-caution zones as well, that for-profit use of data should be opt in, that the decision not to provide your personal information shouldn't kind of bar you from city services. And that Canadians should have more rights to their own personal information.


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