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Smart city spending climbs along with deep reservations by residents

Categories Biometrics News  |  Surveillance


Citizen protests and lawsuits notwithstanding, municipalities around the world are rushing to install surveillance systems marketed as smart city technology.

Recent analysis by research firm Berg Insight looking at the rise of connected public spaces notes that the global market in 2018 was valued at $6.5 billion.

Berg has forecast that, led by Asia-Pacific governments, this market will jump at a compounded annual growth rate of 24.5 percent, topping $19.5 billion by 2023.

Spending on systems in North America and Europe makes up just 30 percent of the global market. China spends much of the rest of that total, Berg research suggests.

That is hardly surprising. Research done by technology review site Comparitech in 2019 found that eight of the 10 most-surveilled cities in the world were in China. (London and Atlanta rounded out the list.)

Comparitech estimates that sometime next year, China will have one public closed-circuit television camera for every two of its citizens. That would mean mounting 700 million cameras nationwide.

For the time being, the dominant hardware platforms being deployed worldwide are fixed-network surveillance infrastructure. That is changing with increased use of body-worn cameras (including those of police officers) and gun-shot detection devices, according to Berg’s research.

That breakdown is unlikely to last very long.

Spain, for instance, has launched machine-learning drones to catch people driving unsafely — talking on a phone, ignoring traffic signs, not wearing seat belts, etc. — according to the Smart.City_Lab blog.

Berg’s report actually takes a broader view of smart-city innovations, also analyzing smart street lighting projects. These lighting systems use sensors to change light output based on activity in the immediate surroundings.

There were 10.4 million individually controlled smart street lights globally in 2018. Berg estimates that that number will triple, to 31.2 percent, by 2023.

A portion of that growth might reflect the overall governmental and commercial appetite for public-space surveillance. After all, it is only a matter of degree between detecting an approaching vehicle and recording a 2020 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat painted TorRed under a Scat Pack Bumblebee Stripe with Nevada plates.

And therein lies the one factor that might at least temper smart-city surveillance momentum. Not everyone is happy with the notion that cities — much less their for-profit contractors — will watch them so carefully.

As reported by the American Planning Association, a 2017 effort in Toronto to redevelop 12 acres of waterfront property as a “smart” neighborhood called Quayside.

A development proposal from Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Alphabet Inc. (which also owns Google), was chosen. It included plans for, among other amenities, underground delivery robots, driverless buses, smart lights and a biometric identity system.

The planning association published a lengthy article chronicling the Quayside proposal, saying that opponents saw a “surveillance city.” And residents are not convinced that Sidewalk Labs will not sell data they generate merely by walking along a lakefront the way Google sells search information.

The approval process continues, but, according to TechCrunch, ownership and use of the data remain problematic. At one point, at least, Sidewalk Labs refused to commit to anonymizing collected data before sending it off to third parties.

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