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COVID-19, Smart Cities And Privacy vs. Public Safety

COVID-19, Smart Cities And Privacy vs. Public Safety
01 June 2020

COVID-19 has revealed the shortcomings of major cities in times of crisis and smart city initiatives might be able to help address these.

According to a report from global law firm White & Case, smart city initiatives can offer a way to make urban areas more resilient.

The report suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic may present a similar “whiteboard moment” to accelerate infrastructure, as outbreaks of communicable disease “have a long history of changing cities for the better.”



“The urgency of the response to COVID-19 could well affect where the balance sits between personal privacy and public health and safety.”

–White & Case Report 


Accelerating change


London's sewer network was constructed following the cholera epidemic in the 1850s, and building ventilation standards improved after the Spanish flu in 1918, and the report from White & Case says that COVID-19 may prove a similar force for technological change in modern cities.

The smart city, a catch-all term used to describe how technology and data analytics can be harnessed to make cities more sustainable and efficient, is likely to have a profound influence on how policymakers and inhabitants reimagine urban spaces. White & Case establish that, for any city or organization that plans to put smart city ideas at the centre of its wider planning strategy, the collection of data, and regulation of its use, is the foundation upon which any plans must be built.

Co-authored by White & Case Partners Oliver Brettle, Nicholas Greenacre, Tim Hickman, Andres Liivak, Daren Orzechowski and Adam Pierson, COVID-19 is being considered as “a game-changer”,  because the public health and safety considerations have accelerated data sharing, moving the boundaries on personal privacy protection.

Inevitably, there are trade-offs to be made between the privacy rights of individuals and the rapid development of new technologies in the context of smart cities. 


Privacy and data


The report reads:

“In many western legal structures, privacy rights make it more complex and expensive to collect data concerning individuals, and to process that data for purposes including the operation and development of smart cities. 

“The collection of data also comes with commercial and intellectual property challenges. If smart cities are to work, especially those adopting artificial intelligence, they need data sets that are accurate and up-to-date. In addition, competing businesses and platforms need to be able to access that data in different ways and for different purposes. But if data are to be centralized and then shared, and leveraged by many people in a scalable way, we must ask who owns the data and what are the rules governing its commercial use.

“The urgency of the response to COVID-19 could well affect where the balance sits between personal privacy and public health and safety. 

“The impact of the virus may also focus minds and speed up cooperation between private companies and government when it comes to sharing data and putting it on an appropriately controlled open-source platform.

“Government could have a key role to play here in setting up and controlling such a platform, and making sure that all citizens, irrespective of socio-economics, have the tools to contribute to and benefit from data-driven knowledge of infection rates, healthcare, digital health and telemedicine provision.”

A full copy of the report is available here.

Picture: A photograph taken at night of a Dubai cityscape

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 01 June 2020


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