Leeds smart city plans described as 'akin to living under Stasi rule'

Graphic rendering of a satellite view of the city of Leeds
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Leeds City Council's plans to introduce a set of smart city projects have been criticised by a local councillor, who's described the initiative as akin to living under the Stasi rule of East Germany.

The council is plotting to engage in several major smart city projects, according to documents seen by the Telegraph & Argus, which include introducing sensors to monitor pedestrian and traffic levels, as well as monitor air quality.

Conservative councillor Neil Buckley, however, suggested “it sounds a bit like something out of Deutschland 83”, referencing the fictional TV series based in East Germany, during a meeting held to discuss the plans, according to the paper.

He likened the proposals to living under Communist rule at the time, a period which saw the Stasi state security service engage in extensive data collection against East German citizens.

Buckley, who is a member of the Infrastructure Scrutiny Board, the panel responsible for considering these plans, also queried whether sensors that measured air quality could be used to devise policies like a congestion charge at short notice, which Conservative Party politicians generally oppose.

Leeds City Council is hoping to use this data to “influence behaviour change” by sending real-time messages about air quality to people living in different parts of the city, officials said.

The local authority could also develop a ‘smart cycling’ app to help cyclists gain increased priority through traffic signals, as well as being able to report problems on routes.

Future plans may see the introduction of “civic credits” that are awarded to people for maintaining healthy lifestyles, as well as the development of a “purpose-built innovation space” on disused land in 2023.

Officials insist the data will be collected properly, managed securely, and used ethically.

“I think in terms of data ethics and the innovation projects and how we collect data in the future, it is important as a foundation that we have the trust from our customers, citizens and tenants, that we manage their data in the right way,” said Leeds City Council officer Stephen Blackburn, who manages Leeds’ smart city programme.

Blackburn stressed in the meeting that it’s important the council had trust from citizens, that the local authority could manage data in the right way, and that data is used ethically.

He added there’s more work to do to convince people that smart city projects will be run in the right way, and that third-party partners share the same ethical values as Leeds City Council.

“I would say there is a certain amount of data scepticism around at the moment. People are sceptical about what data is being collected and who has access to it,” he continued.

“I think we are a trusted organisation in terms of managing the data, and I think we do things in the right way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t need to do more to convince some of our citizens.”

There’s a high degree of scepticism around smart city projects from many across society due to the sheer amount of data that needs to be collected and managed to render these plans effective. Much of the technology that would be deployed has also been branded invasive.

Most examples of unethical smart city projects originate outside of the UK, however, where initiatives are far more advanced than they are at home. China’s social credit system, where citizens are awarded a score based on their deeds in society, is considered to be highly intrusive and authoritarian, for example.

Closer to home, the recent debate around vaccine passports and the NHS Test and Trace system has centred around how the data is collected, and well as the ethical considerations of using this data to manage people.

The government’s plans to build a COVID-19 data store, for example, came under fire by privacy and digital rights activists for a lack of transparency, especially considering NHSX was partnering with a host of private companies.

Leeds itself has ambitions to be a tech hub that can rival San Francisco, and has been plotting ways to do so for several years.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.