Now HK protesters are declaring war on smart lamp posts

smart lamp post
A smart lamp post, recently. Image credit:

ITEM: Anti-extradition protesters in Hong Kong attacked smart lamp posts over the weekend, illustrating a key requirement for governments planning smart city initiatives: the trust of their citizens.

As protests in Hong Kong returned to the usual street clashes, one new element to this weekend’s activities was the sight of protesters sawing down at least one ‘smart lamp post’ on the grounds that they are “facial recognition towers”.

In reality, they’re no such thing.

Background: The HK government is deploying around 400 smart lamp posts under a three-year pilot that started at the end of June. Fifty of them have already been installed in Kowloon Bay, Kai Tak and Kwun Tong.

The lamp posts are equipped with cameras and sensors to monitor things like meteorological conditions, air quality and traffic flow. They’re also set up to detect vehicle speeds, recognize vehicle license plates and spot illegal dumping of industrial waste, although those three functions have not yet been activated due to concerns over privacy and the extent to which the posts would be collecting personal information.

The Office of the Government CIO has stated that the cameras do not support facial recognition. Unfortunately, Hong Kong is in a place right now where many people don’t believe anything the current government says, particularly frontline protesters.

And so that’s why they sawed a smart lamp post down.

Smart city is watching you

What’s interesting to me is that there’s a lesson here for any city undertaking a smart-city program: don’t assume that your citizens are 100% comfortable with this technology and/or trust you to use it responsibly.

Yes, we can argue that the protesters are being overly paranoid. On the other hand, it’s not like these smart lamp posts can’t be used for mass surveillance. Of course they can.

In fact, when you get right down to it, the core essence of smart city tech is surveillance in the sense that the objective is to make the cloud aware of the real world and the humans who live in it. This requires using sensors and cameras to gather data, analyse it and make decisions based on the results.

Like with any other technology, whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how you use it. But while the benefits may seem obvious to the vendors who sell the technology and the customers who implement it, they’re not so obvious to the average person who doesn’t know how this stuff works.

So the question is: how do you convince everyone that smart city tech is benevolent?

The answer to that lies in transparency and civic engagement. In other words, governments have to be transparent about how smart city technologies are deployed so that citizens will trust them, and they have to proactively give the public a platform to discuss various initiatives.

Proactive engagement

To be fair, the HK government didn’t suddenly spring the idea of smart lamp posts on an unsuspecting public – the lamp post scheme is part of the government’s Smart City Blueprint, which was unveiled at the end of 2017 and is freely available on a dedicated website. There’s even a spreadsheet showing what each

On the other hand, that clearly wasn’t enough. It was only after the lamp post project started that the Government CIO office quickly found itself fielding concerns about privacy and facial recognition tech, and it was only then that the office said it would assemble a consultation committee to assess whether the lamp posts comply with privacy regulations.

Viktor Weber, founder and director of the Future Real Estate Institute, wrote in a recent blog post for the World Economic Forum that city residents are the most important stakeholder in any smart city initiative that are often left out of the planning process. Thus, he writes, it’s not enough to simply tell the public what you’re doing, but to directly solicit their involvement:

I plea that decision-makers of smart city projects should include a representative group of their city’s inhabitants into their ideation, strategy development and project implementation. It should conduct extensive surveys, focus groups and interviews, have an offline as well as online open-innovation hub with a democratic and transparent voting system.

Hong Kong is a bit of an extreme case, because trust in the current government is at an all-time low regardless of its smart-city plan. But early engagement and transparency might have at least helped to head off rumors about facial recognition towers. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Anyway, it’s worth remembering that to some people, smart city projects sound like a scary Big Brother dystopia at face value. So it’s probably a good idea to do everything possible to demonstrate that there’s little to fear and plenty to gain, and give them every reason to trust you to run it responsibly.

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