IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Erie, Pa., Works to Balance Privacy in the Smart City

From cameras capable of reading faces and license plates to self-serve kiosks that take credit card payments, city officials are having to reconcile the balance between innovation and public privacy.

(TNS) — The city of Erie is getting smarter.

There are security cameras throughout the city, some capable of facial recognition or capturing vehicle license plates.

Free public Wi-Fi is now available in Perry Square, and could soon be in the city's designated federal Opportunity Zones to help spur development.

And kiosks allow motorists to pay for parking throughout downtown Erie with credit cards.

But as Erie pushes forward with what's known as its Smart City Initiative, local officials say they're also aware of the privacy and security concerns that accompany such an effort, as well as the privacy-related issues that other smart cities have encountered.

"You always have to keep privacy and security in mind," said Karl Sanchack, CEO of the Erie Innovation District, which has been partnering on a smart city project with the city of Erie that is focused largely on downtown and Perry Square. "Security is paramount in our thinking."

Whether it's a firewall or other protection built into the public Wi-Fi available in Perry Square, encryption that protects credit card transactions when you pay for parking, or state laws that prohibit images from traffic camera systems to be used for surveillance purposes, local officials say there are protections in place when it comes to this increased collection of personal data in the name of progress.

Smart cities are urban areas that use different forms of electronic data collection, including sensors, to supply information that is then used to efficiently manage assets and resources. The downtown smart city pilot project was announced in April 2018 and focused on downtown and Perry Square. New LED lighting, video surveillance cameras and free Wi-Fi were installed in an area encompassing State Street between Sixth and 12th streets.

Quantela Inc., a global data analytics company that has worked on similar projects worldwide, helped implement the project, which was paid for by $300,000 in Erie Innovation District funds.

"For us, there are industry standards in terms of credit card transactions that protect privacy," said Christopher Friday, the Erie Parking Authority's executive director.

The authority has added a number of automated parking kiosks downtown in the past year and has worked closely with the Innovation District on the smart city plan.

"We have to get certified every year just to take a credit card. And the data is encrypted and sent straight to a (third-party) processor — it never even gets into our parking authority systems," Friday said. "None of that credit card information is stored with us at the parking authority."

Across the nation and in other parts of the world, though, smart city technology has spawned fears that progress could put individual privacy and security at risk. And since the technology is largely installed in public spaces, its use has sparked fierce debates about how much of a reasonable expectation of privacy citizens should have.

The Washington Post reported recently that the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the city, provincial and federal governments to shut down Toronto's Quayside neighborhood project over privacy concerns. The group's director, Michael Bryant, said that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been "seduced by the honey pot of Google's sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory."

Privacy rules have been adopted in Seattle, Oakland, New York City and Portland, Oregon, regarding how data gathered in those cities can be used. In May, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors banned the use of facial recognition software by the police and other agencies, after civil liberties groups expressed concerns about the potential for abuse.

Officials in Somerville, Massachusetts, have also banned facial recognition technology's use in public spaces.

Erie City Councilwoman Liz Allen said that she would like to see council create an innovation committee. That committee, Allen said, could deal with security- and privacy-related issues and questions that arise.

"We have to educate ourselves about issues of privacy rights that are likely to surface," Allen said. "What technologies help to improve public safety? What are the boundary lines? Are residents even aware of what technologies are being used and how data is collected and used?"

Allen said that, in the future, City Council might have to consider putting policies in place to regulate the use of smart city technology.

Erie Mayor Joe Schember added that while there are privacy and security challenges that go with such technology, local officials are committed to using it responsibly.

"It's a legitimate concern, and we don't want this new technology so we can spy on people or invade their privacy," Schember said. "But we have things in place to prevent that."

Schember mentioned, for example, that cameras in Perry Square that have object detection and facial recognition capabilities — installed as part of the smart city project — monitor those areas against databases that only search for specific images of interest, such as an unattended bag.

Further, he said, license plate cameras only compare plate numbers against a database that includes plates that are of specific interest to Erie police or other law enforcement agencies.

"We're not just saying, 'I'd like to look at the last hour at 12th and State just to see who's walking around," Schember said. "The way the camera systems are structured, it prevents spying on people."

However, Schember acknowledged that much of the smart city technology being used in Erie does have the potential to be misused.

If that happens, "we need to hold people accountable," Schember said. "We want people to trust us and to know that our intention with this technology is to be responsible."

Sanchack, of the Innovation District, reiterated that responsibility is at the core of what local officials are trying to accomplish with the smart city plan.

"It's an important subject," Sanchack said. "As a community member, I would want to have the assurances that I'm both safe and that I can maintain my own civic privacy. Our mandate is to try to make the city successful for business attraction and safe for citizens, to create a safer and more healthy environment. It's not to collect a lot of individual data on citizens."

©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.