Smart cities are the future – but what about privacy?

Privacy is paramount, yet Hong Kong isn’t acting fast enough to ensure privacy is prioritised as it turns into a smart city.


From innovative environmental solutions to sensor-powered parking spaces that know when they are available, smart city ideals are gradually making the switch from dream to reality. But citizens’ privacy remains a concern that the Hong Kong government has yet to address effectively.

Big plans mean big data plans

The Special Administrative Region is well-positioned to become a smart city. Hong Kong boasts a leading telecommunications network and internet penetration rates are among the highest in the world with 92.5 percent of households connected to broadband.

In December 2017 the Hong Kong government released its Smart City Blueprint. The vision it contained sees Hong Kong becoming a world-leading smart city within five years. Through the increased use of technological solutions, the Blueprint aims to boost the efficiency of city management, prioritise sustainability, and ultimately improve citizens’ quality of life. 

Specifically, the six key areas set for overhaul are Smart Mobility, Smart Living, Smart Environment, Smart People, Smart Government, and Smart Economy. Current projects include smart traffic detectors, autonomous vehicle trials, sensors to monitor air quality and pollution, and smart lamposts that collect real-time city data.

Other global smart city projects have similar ambitious aims. Singapore may be leading the smart city pack currently but other cities like Zurich, Oslo, Auckland, and Copenhagen are not far behind, according to IMD’s inaugural Smart City Index for 2019.

The rise of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and increasingly clever information and communication (ICT) solutions mean municipalities can enact meaningful changes to city management across all sectors. At the core of smart cities is IoT, a vast network of interconnected devices that communicate and share information.

That information can encompass GPS data from a citizen’s phone that communicates with a city’s physical infrastructure, or smart cameras that help solve crimes faster and cheaper. 

Data. Your data.

To effectively create truly smart cities, governments need a lot of data, in fact, it is citizens’ data that power smart city decisions; the way we interact with our urban spaces dictates what the city should do to optimise the way we live. But to garner this information, privacy may be compromised.

Concerns about data protection in smart cities are pertinent and pressing, particularly as early examples such as Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs collaboration have revealed flaws. In Hong Kong, Smart City Portal information is said to be managed in accordance with the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, and that all collected data is depersonalised. The Transport Department also stated that lower-definition images are deliberately used in CCTVs.

However, these statements on data safety might just be empty promises to Hong Kong people due to their distrust in the government, leading to opposition against the government collecting data across the city. During the protests last year, smart lamp posts were destroyed in fear of government surveillance. Thus, an open and transparent government, as well as appropriate laws to keep the power of the government under control, are the prerequisites for an effective smart city project.

Hong Kong’s governing powers need to pay heed to matters of privacy because without trust people will hesitate to share data and without this, a smart city is little more than a pipe dream.

Printer: R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road, Central, Hong Kong

the author

Chris is the resident tech expert and managing director of #TurnOnVPN. #TurnOnVPN is an activist group whose mission is to promote free and unimpeded internet for all. We take part in numerous online events to advocate for a safe, secure, and censor-free Internet. Learn more at www.turnonvpn.org/blog/.