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Will Data Privacy Issues Affect New Orleans’ Broadband Push?

New Orleans recently collected smart city proposals to achieve broadband equity in the city. However, it’s unclear how the city will ensure data privacy as it unfolds the broad urban tech initiative.

A busy narrow street in New Orleans.
Proposals from smart city technology partners to increase broadband connectivity in New Orleans were due May 17.
David Kidd/e.Republic
A smart city deployment proposal hopes to take a significant step toward closing the digital divide in New Orleans, but experts warn the city could jeopardize this effort without stronger consumer data protections.

The city issued an RFP for an “Advanced Broadband and Smart City” system to find a technology partner for a project anticipated to cost between $20 million and $50 million. Proposals were due May 17.

In addition to asking for “a no-cost service level for every resident unable to afford Internet access,” the RFP sought a citywide smart city solution to modernize thousands of streetlights by upgrading them to LEDs and outfitting them with a host of sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which would enable intelligent traffic management and other tasks. The city also wants to upgrade its internal communications infrastructure and connect some 430 Sewerage and Water Board sites with a fiber network.

“Our goal is not to compete, or become a service provider, but to improve the city’s infrastructure," said Kim LaGrue, chief information officer for New Orleans, during an April 16 news conference announcing the RFP release. “Though if we could deliver some services in a capacity that benefits the city, and through the infrastructure that we’re building, we would be able to do so.”

But perhaps the city’s most ambitious aim is around equity. Some 23 percent to 33 percent of New Orleans households lack a home Internet connection, according to the city’s RFP, while 21 percent of homes lack a computer.

“More than just your typical public Wi-Fi, we want to make sure people are connected in their home, at their kitchen table, where they do their homework, where they do their work,” said Jonathan Rhodes, director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities, at the press conference. “And we want to make sure that some level of that is either free or affordable.”

“Expanding broadband access is a modern-day version of what the government did decades ago to expand access to electricity to everyone, particularly programs such as rural electrification,” said Nico Larco, a University of Oregon architecture professor and expert in areas like urban technology. “Without it, you are leaving large swaths of the population behind.”

A second and significant part of the plan is the smart city half of it, which will collect vast swaths of resident and visitor data so that New Orleans can improve its traffic and transit management, delivery of city services and more. It’s not yet clear what level of sharing, monetizing or manipulating of data New Orleans would agree to. All data will belong to the city, the RFP states. Additionally, a key objective is to “maintain security and privacy” for residents.

City officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on how data will be shared among departments such as police, how long it will be stored, whether it will be sold to third parties and other concerns around consumer data privacy.

“Generally, the biggest problem with any smart cities or ... any urban technology initiative is when it’s operating in a regulatory vacuum,” said Rohit T. Aggarwala, senior urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech, who added that he dislikes “smart cities” as a term. “Because then the problem is, people’s worst fears are actually legitimate fears. There’s no way to allay them.”

A lack of regulation in areas like consumer data protection can stymie smart city projects. One of the most high-profile rollbacks of urban technology was in San Diego, where city officials pumped the brakes on the data collection of thousands of smart streetlights following a wave of resident concerns around how that data was shared, particularly with police. Controversies about government-sanctioned surveillance have only become more pronounced in the wake of national awareness around equity and social justice following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last year.

“I’m worried about things like what happened in San Diego, for example,” said Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at NewCities, expressing concern about large-scale smart city deployment in the absence of strong consumer data protection and regulation.

Several consumer data protection bills have been introduced in Louisiana but have failed to advance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One approach, said Lindsay, may be to separate the broadband expansion part of the initiative from the smart city efforts, as a way to avoid attaching equity to “this classic surveillance capitalist approach.”

“This is an important conversation at every level, as we’ve seen the call for a national rural broadband rollout as part of President Biden’s infrastructure bill,” Lindsay said. “So there is this sort of widespread understanding that broadband is essential. However, that it actually includes these provisions here about widespread surveillance technology as part of it raises all sorts of red flags.”

“It’s really the question of ‘How do you ensure that it’s being kept from police?’” he added. “I think there should be a conversation that goes beyond New Orleans about this.”

A 2018 investigation by The Verge uncovered a partnership between the New Orleans Police Department and Palantir, a Silicon Valley technology company, which used software to trace residents’ ties to criminal activity or gang membership. The program was disclosed to neither the city council nor residents, the investigation found.

Too often, in the absence of clear rules around data collection and sharing, smart city projects can run aground due to community pushback, said Aggarwala, a former head of urban systems at Sidewalk Labs when it was partnering with Toronto to create a district packed with urban technology and data collection. The Toronto effort was ultimately mired in controversy, due in part to concerns about data governance and protections for consumers.

“I think the reality is, the absence of such rules will hold back the deployment of urban technology because these are issues that should be settled,” Aggarwala said. “If there is really no nefarious intent, then why wouldn’t you just put that rule in place?”

Editor's note: This article was changed after publication.
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 Yreka, Calif.