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When billboards stare back: how cities can reclaim the digital public space

Data protection Data surveillance Electronic surveillance Future cities Smart cities Cities and towns Privacy

Our physical public areas – town squares, pedestrian zones, shopping centres and bus stops – are increasingly subject to unfettered digitalisation. Examples include the ubiquitous security camera translating everyday street life into digital images, wi-fi tracking devices to count customers and analyse their shop journeys, or automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) to register real-world cars and their holders into a searchable database.

Where such sensors are installed by commercial actors without making sure citizens can properly consent, we become unwitting objects of pervasive privacy infringements that we don’t have the chance to opt out of.

To shed some light on this little-known problem, this report seeks to showcase examples of how commercial sensors are used in city spaces, what those cities affected have been able to do about it and what other cities could take away from such experiences.

Key recommendations:

  • Make effective and smart use of the powers and instruments that cities already have, such as licensing and purchasing, so that commercial parties handle the use of sensors in public space responsibly.
  • Engage citizens, civil society and commercial parties in a bottom-up manner. Take on a communicative and mediating role.
  • Integrate privacy expertise across local authority departments.
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