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Myrtle Beach, S.C., Smart City Plans Prompt Surveillance Concerns

Efforts to make the city smarter has some residents concerned that the technology will be used to spy. But officials say that’s not the case and that a substantial public safety camera network has been in place since 2015.

(TNS) — The theories started almost immediately.

After an image was posted to a popular Myrtle Beach Facebook page earlier this month showing loudspeakers affixed to light poles along Broadway,it took just a few minutes before the questions followed.


Isn't Myrtle Beach looking to become a "smart city?" Is this secretly part of a newly installed surveillance network?

In truth, the city is already using monitoring technology in policing, and officials likely will expand its uses over the coming years as its arts and innovation district evolves.

"We have publicized well throughout most of the last decade that the city of Myrtle Beach has invested in a camera system. Many other cities have, too; we didn't originate this idea," city spokesman Mark Kruea said. "This precedes the 'smart city' discussion by many years."

While the answer from city officials about the Broadway audio devices was simple — they're being set up ahead of Winter Wonderland at The Beach (with no ulterior motive) — the incident underscores fear some have about it means for their privacy as South Carolina's tourism capital moves ahead with its technological future.

But if you've visited Myrtle Beach any time over the last several years, chances are your image has already been captured. There's roughly 1,100 camera overlooking parks, streets, city facilities and public buildings — a network that's been built out steadily since 2015.

"They are not to spy on people's lives or gather information about them and their comings and goings. That's plainly ridiculous," city spokesman Mark Kruea said. "Instead, the cameras are part of the technology we use to reduce crime and catch criminals. And they are remarkably effective at their job."

Howard Waldie IV, the city's first chief innovation officer, promises Ocean Boulevard isn't becoming Oceania — the superstate in George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" where government overreach and mass surveillance are ever present threats.

"It's not about watching people's every move. It's about making sure we can give them that better quality of life or that experience that we want them to see," he said.

A Internet search asking "are smart cities dangerous," returns more than 53 million hits as the world's largest cities continue to pioneer new ways of delivering services, managing traffic and yes, monitoring public activities in high volume areas.

Myrtle Beach isn't to those levels yet, but has used scanners and other equipment for several years already.

In 2019 alone, automated license plate readers scanned more than 32.8 million plates for the police department, resulting in more than 114,000 tags tied to reported crimes.

Waldie has outlined several examples of urban technology in use across cities of various sizes that could be modified for Myrtle Beach:

  • In Raleigh, North Carolina, trash and recycling bins can signal waste management when they're full or under used so workers can adjust their routes
  • In Columbus, Ohio, a solar powered microgrid serves as a back up energy source for the water system to keep it running smoothly through emergencies and peak consumption times
  • In Newport News and Virginia Beach, Virginia, acoustic gunfire detection systems can pinpoint potential crimes in real-time. Myrtle beach rolled out its system in May.
  • Los Angeles uses its utility poles as wifi hot spots. Many are also outfitted with USB ports to charge portable devices.
  • Officials in Athens, Greece partnered with Google to turn the city into a living museum through augmented reality.

In the months since Waldie's presentation on a smarter Myrtle Beach, social media posts have circulated warning of hidden agendas and shadow organizations ready to harvest publicly gathered information.

However, there are steps government officials should take as they pursue advancements that intersect with privacy, according to a February report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, including;

  • As much as is possible, cities and communities should anonymize any personal data they collect via smart city technologies to reduce the potential threat to individuals' privacy.
  • Where possible, cities and communities should also delete stored personal data after a certain period of time when the data is no longer useful for its intended function.
  • Cities and communities should not require third parties to turn over sensitive personal data about their users as a condition of operating in the city, but could require sharing of anonymized or other nonsensitive data.

'Cities and communities should take their residents' privacy into account when implementing smart city technologies, but this should not be their only priority," said Ashley Johnson, a senior analyst at the foundation who authored the report. "If privacy were governments' only priority, governments would never collect data on their citizens; but governments do because there are legitimate reasons why they may need this data."

©2023 The Sun News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.