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Smart cities or wiretap ones?

Government may have to address privacy concerns arising out of project

Surabhi Agarwal & Aditi Divekar  |  New Delhi 

The government allocated upwards of Rs 7,000 crore for building 100 in the country in the Union Budget, leading to huge opportunities for corporate houses, especially technology-centric ones.

According to experts, once the jubilation around the business prospects settles down, the government may have to address privacy issues that a project of this nature may throw up. India still does not have a privacy law that spells out no-go areas for the government in this kind of surveillance.

"We have a euphoric attitude towards technology and what it can do, but this is a good time to raise these issues," said Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of IT for Change, a think tank dealing with technology issues.

A smart city's roads, traffic, electricity, water and sewage are connected through a technology platform and controlled at an integrated centre. This helps not only in better urban planning but also improves use of resources. However, considering these cities will have to be ring-fenced through closed circuit cameras and lots of equipment in homes and offices will contain electronic chips to transmit information, there could be privacy concerns. The government may end up collecting too much data about citizens that could be misused if not protected.

R Chandrashekhar, president of technology industry body Nasscom, said, "We have the right to information but the other side of the coin the right to privacy is not there." The former telecom and IT secretary has been part of discussions on a privacy bill, first mooted in 2010 and re-drafted several times, whose future is not clear under the new government.

Last year, camera footage of a couple travelling in the was leaked on the Internet creating a huge public outcry. Issues such as how much can the government record; who can access that data; for how long can it be stored; and what are the penalties for misuse need to be defined clearly. Even though India has an that deals with some of these issues, Chandrasekhar said a comprehensive law was needed that would be binding on public authorities and individuals.

Singh added that we should have clear policies around privacy before the government decided to go in for such massive surveillance. "Considering these cities will involve the Internet of Things, there will be personal information on a grid that needs to be dealt with carefully," he pointed out.

However, technology companies, which see an investment opportunity around smart cities, differ. Anand Navani, country manager of video intelligence solutions at Verint System, said keeping public places under surveillance was in the interest of citizens and could not be considered as an intrusion on privacy. The company participated in the Surat Safe City Project. "When implementing the project in Surat, we along with the authorities had identified public spots in the city that need to be under check. These places were not schools or college campuses or even manufacturing or industrial areas that could be considered evading privacy," said Navani.

Safe cities uses all key resources the government agencies had to make them livable, added Andrew Chi, head of public safety solutions at NEC India.

Cyber law consultant N A Vijayashankar said even though an individual had no claim on privacy in a public place, there must be a way for citizens to uphold their rights in case of a breach. "The IT Act does provide safeguards, but it does not spell out for how much time the information collected by the government can be stored and what are the security measures that need to be put in place to ensure against misuse." The leaked tapes of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia were an example of such a breach, he added.

| The government has allocated Rs 7,000 crore for building 100 smart cities
| This is a huge opportunity for corporates especially technology firms

| Citizens' privacy could be an issue as India still doesn't have a privacy bill
| A smart city will be an integrating infrastructure and services through a technology platform and controlled through an integrated command centre

First Published: Sat, July 12 2014. 22:37 IST