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Cities are the new data guzzlers

Collage of architectural photos
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

From getting a license to paying taxes, we routinely give cities granular data on who we are, where we live, what we do and how much we earn.

Why it matters: “City Hall has a treasure trove of information about you,” says Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert at Ryerson University. “You have no choice but to give them information.”

For example: New York's LinkNYC WiFi hotspots, which also have cameras, can analyze images of people passing by particular kiosks. Over time, images could be linked to their identity and other sensitive data, like credit scores.

  • Theoretically, that information could then be used to place ads for payday loans around that kiosk, says Katya Abazajian, Open Cities director at the Sunlight Foundation.

If predictions turn out to be true, 5G-connected devices (dashcams, bikes, umbrellas, clothing, keys) and city infrastructure (streetlights, stop signs, utility lines) equipped with elaborate sensor networks will be able to pinpoint your real-time location.

  • But the explosion of data and always-connected items will lead to new and unpredictable applications.
  • For example, sensors could track how frequently you go to the gym or cameras could see how often you run red lights — data that insurance companies might be interested in, Abazajian said.

The bottom line: "As tech companies get more and more consent from people to collect data on how they live their lives, there are going to be more unexpected uses of that data to shape your access to consumer goods or any services," says Abazajian.

  • "It's all about who is sharing the data with whom. And we just don't know that right now."

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