Report: NYC Should Prioritize Data Privacy Regulations

A new report from Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech addresses a range of digital city issues like data privacy as a foundation for any city considering the deployment of urban technology to advance community goals.

People crossing a busy street in New York City.
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Reasonable data protection for the people who live in and visit cities may be the foundation for smart city growth, suggests a new report from the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech.

The report, titled Rebooting NYC: An Urban Tech Agenda for the Next Administration, outlines the steps New York City should take to ensure data privacy and protection for the city’s millions of residents and visitors as a baseline to build urban technology systems that improve the operations of nearly every part of civic life.

The challenges faced by New York — and many cities — are not so much technological in nature, but rather center on issues like privacy, administration and equity, the report concludes.

One of the first recommendations calls for the establishment of a city data privacy law, which would regulate how agencies use and share data, and the formation of an oversight process for agencies wanting to deploy “new data-gathering capabilities or combine datasets in new ways.”

Under the recommendations, private-sector vendors would be held to transparency requirements for any data collected, shared, manipulated or monetized. Meanwhile, the police department would need a warrant to access data from, for example, the cameras commonly deployed on streetlights or other government databases.

These steps, say the report’s authors, are necessary to advance urban tech that uses data, processing, artificial intelligence and other tools from the digital age to make urban systems run more efficiently.

Without proper privacy protocols in place, projects to develop intelligent traffic management, a digital-first city hall and other efforts could face community pushback, said Rohit T. Aggarwala, senior urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech.

“Traditionally, we have framed privacy as being, people who are pro-privacy are generally against data collection, and generally against technology,” Aggarwala said. “And that need not be true.”

“Overall, any major effort of urban technology needs to be preceded by a thorough set of standards for how city government is going to use the data,” he added.

The report, which steers away from broad use of the term “smart cities,” puts forward the concept of “privacy as contextual integrity,” a phrase coined by Cornell Tech Professor Helen Nissenbaum. As the report states, contextual integrity hinges on the idea “that legitimate data collection and use depends on the public’s understanding of what is, and is not, the purpose for which the data is being collected.”

For example, NYC is now allowing three e-scooter companies to operate in the city, with the one requirement being that the operators provide real-time data to the NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT). The data relates to who is riding what scooter and where, all in the name of ensuring public safety, which seems like an overreach into the privacy of users, say researchers.

It remains to be known to the average New Yorker why the city’s transportation department needs data at this level, said Aggarwala.

“Personally, I’m all in favor of making sure the city government has the upper hand over Uber and Lyft and Lime and all of those folks,” he said. “But at the same time I couldn’t get anybody to actually explain to me what legitimate purpose they have for real-time information about who was where on a bike.”

There is no process requiring NYC DOT to document why it needs the data, what it will be used for or who it will be shared with, the research found.

“The reality is, whether you, DOT, mean it or not, the reality is the most likely user of this information is the police department,” said Aggarwala.

“The critics are worried about NYPD [New York Police Department]; the transportation officials are worried about Uber,” he added. “Unless there’s a deeply hidden agenda, there should be negotiating room, but neither side sees it. I think this is happening over and over.”

That said, cities have been considerable consumers of urban technology, in many cases to help advance high-level goals around environmental sustainability, equity, the reduction of traffic congestion and more.

“If cities are needed to either facilitate or allow the deployment of these technologies — and they almost always are — then there is a great opportunity for governments to make sure they shape deployment in a way that supports community goals,” said Nico Larco, a University of Oregon architecture professor and expert in areas like urban technology.

Increasingly, data privacy is advancing as a community goal. A number of cities and states have taken steps to pass data privacy protection laws. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed the New York Data Accountability and Transparency Act (NYDATA) as part of the 2022 New York State Executive Budget. The proposal is modeled on California’s set of laws on data privacy.

Clearly, the report’s message to the Big Apple’s next mayor is to place a premium on data privacy and protection for the country’s largest city.

“By bringing together experts in urban planning, civic engagement, government and technology, we can leverage the power of technology to make cities stronger, fairer and more resilient,” said Michael Samuelian, founding director of the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub, in a statement. “The innovative proposals in ‘Rebooting NYC’ build on the success of existing government initiatives and identify bold new ideas for New Yorkers to consider as we head into a new generation of leadership at City Hall.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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