C. Technology in support of green and social values

The city's streets, squares, and parks should invite physical movement, play, exercise, and encounters. Digital platforms do not eliminate the need for physical meeting places; urban design, architecture, and traffic policies should contribute to lively public spaces where people feel both free and safe.

The introduction of new vehicles, from electric scooters to self-driving cars, should not be at the expense of space for pedestrians, cyclists, and playing children. In the city, the quality of outdoor life must be prioritised over the speed of travel.

People must be able to move around in the public space without being constantly fol­lowed by cameras and sensors. Municipalities should be cautious with camera surveil­lance. Local politicians should realise that the personal data collected by cameras and sensors, such as for traffic management, can be requisitioned by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Under no circumstances should they transfer such data automatically to the police. That would make a mockery of the principle of purpose limitation.[1]

Automated biometric identification in the public sphere is too serious a breach of priva­cy. This includes cameras with facial recognition software. The use of such cameras, which can capture biometric data of many people simultaneously, is likely to have a chilling effect, for instance by deterring people from taking part in demonstrations.[2] Moreover, the current facial recognition software has a discriminatory bias: women and non-white people are more likely to be flagged up in error.

The American city of San Francisco has banned its agencies, including the police, from using cameras with facial recognition software. “The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous govern­ment monitoring,” according to the city’s Board of Supervisors.[3] Henceforth, the agen­cies need the Board’s permission before they can acquire other types of surveil­lance technology. The Board also demands a yearly audit report on the use, the costs and the effectiveness of such technology.[4]

Tracking people using the signals from their mobile devices also clashes with their reasonable expectation not to be followed in the public space. WiFi or Bluetooth tracking should not be used without informed consent from those involved.[5]

The Dutch city of Nijmegen is running a pilot on a privacy-friendly method of measuring the flow of visitors in the city centre. The images of twenty cameras are immediately con­verted to anonymous data. This can never be traced back to specific persons. Passers-by cannot be followed along their route, and the municipality and shopkeepers get live information on the volume of traffic in the streets.[6]
If this pilot on ‘privacy by design’ is successful, municipalities that use WiFi tracking to count passers-by might no longer be able to demonstrate that they comply with the GDPR. This regulation requires that administrative bodies, in carrying out a public task, use methods that do as little harm as possible to people’s privacy.

Citizens are entitled to information about data collected in the public space. To that end, municipalities can create a public register of sensors, as well as a map[7] that shows where the sensors of both the municipality and other organisations and companies are located. It should be made clear which data is being collected by the sensors, for which purpose, and whether or not personal data is involved. Such transparency makes it easier for citizens to contest surveillance, to reuse the open data from the sensors for new applications, or to submit a request to do their own measurements with the sensors.[8] 


Further viewing

Video: DW News, San Francisco bans facial recognition technology Afspelen op YouTube

Further reading

Municipal regulation on sensors and cameras: Anita Nijboer, Model Bylaw Smart City Applications in the Public Space


This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Green Economics Institute (UK), Institute for Active Citizenship (CZ), Etopia (BE), Cooperation and Development Network Eastern Europe and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

Logo Green European Foundation