Looking through the privacy lens: Three key actions for smart cities success

Tue, 2019-10-08 17:35 -- Adam Beck

Facial recognition, free WiFi, RFID tags, mobile phone apps, body-worn cameras and drones – as these technologies are rolled out around Australia, are cities considering the privacy risks? Not really, says privacy expert Nicole Stephensen.

Brisbane-based Nicole has spent two decades in the privacy profession and is heading to Sydney for Smart Cities Week at the end of October.

Nicole has watched privacy concerns intensify over the last few years as the “explosion” of digital technologies and social media have encouraged the community to share “vast quantities” of their personal information in order to access services and benefits, make purchases and stay connected with their governments, peers and family.

Sharpened scrutiny of the tech titans, or “data brokers” who leverage community information for profit, has also shifted people’s perceptions of privacy.

“The community better understands the value of their personal information and how important it is to protect it,” Nicole says.

Some jurisdictions, like the European Union, have upgraded their privacy laws and now require privacy impact assessments to be undertaken before activities involving the collection, use or disclosure of personal information can begin.

Despite this, privacy remains “off the radar” of most local governments in Australia, Nicole explains.

“Local governments may not be aware of how the privacy legislation in their state or territory applies to them. This privacy legislation spells out how they must collect and manage personal information.”

Local governments gather information to fulfil their responsibilities and deliver services. But each time a citizen signs up for a library card, submits a building application or hits ‘I agree’ to access free WiFi, elements of personal information are collected.

“Many cities are in danger of gathering too much of this information in the first place. They are responsible for securing that information for its lifetime. If they don’t, they risk breaching the privacy law that applies to them.”

Nicole works with local governments to support their smart city rollouts and address community concerns about how personal information and community privacy expectations are managed.

While Nicole says she’s often been met with early resistance as “the handbrake to happiness”, smart cities teams soon see that “privacy is a real opportunity for local governments to vastly improve their relationship with the community”.

What can cities do to treat privacy as an engagement tool rather than a roadblock?


 1. Appoint a privacy officer

“Most local governments don’t have a privacy officer who can invest the time and resources to understand the rules around collecting personal information and manage the risks that follow,” Nicole explains. A privacy officer can assess initiatives in terms of both the “real and measurable” and “perceived” risks to privacy. “Privacy officers can identify concerns and coordinate targeted information privacy programs to address them.”

2. Develop a privacy management framework

“This sets out the strategy for how a city will deal with privacy,” Nicole explains. “The framework can evolve into a plan that sets out objectives and how the city will achieve them over time.”

 3. Embed ‘privacy by design’ into processes

“Cities should consider privacy at the outset when onboarding any new technology or initiative,” says Nicole. “Subscribing to ‘privacy by design’ helps to identify and eliminate privacy risks before they become risks. It doesn’t mean you are going to cancel a project – but it does mean you are aware of the risks and can deal with them.”


Nicole’s message is clear: All local governments have an obligation to comply with privacy laws in their state. But looking at projects through a privacy lens can also be a “critical decision-making exercise”.

“It’s time for cities to up their game. Privacy is an opportunity meaningfully engage with the community and build trust.”

Nicole Stephensen will join other dynamic speakers, visionary local government leaders and trail blazing technologists at Smart Cities Week from 30 October to 1 November in Sydney. Reserve your ticket today.