Is New Orleans Trading Internet Access For Business Monitoring?
A call for proposals was issued last spring, and the city subsequently announced its intention to work with telecommunications company Qualcomm and three other companies. A 240-page proposal, uploaded by local publication The Lens, explains how this partnership would work. The companies promise to deliver “digital equity” within two years by providing broadband coverage over an area of ââ75 square miles, a project that will cost around $ 50 million. However, this service would only be ârunâ by the city, while corporate entrepreneurs would operate it. Funding would come from several areas: the new streetlights would save on energy costs, and many Internet users would still pay subscriptions. The proposal also says entrepreneurs would collect data that they could monetize and share with third parties. It specifically mentions traffic data that could be sold to parts manufacturers, insurance companies and ridesharing companies. Otherwise, Rhodes said in an interview, it is not clear at this point what data would be involved, although he said it absolutely does not identify individuals individually. “We are prohibited by law from collecting personally identifying information, so I can assure you that will not happen,” he said. âNo one wants to be sued. “
However, Marvin Arnold, an organizer of Eye on Surveillance, told The Lens last month that he still had serious concerns because the city’s current privacy rules don’t go far enough. “New Orleans must put in place comprehensive safeguards that ensure data privacy, information security and constitutional protections,” he told the newspaper, “before any major project endangering our personal freedoms not be considered “.
When Rhodes spoke at a hearing last month, council members also expressed unease. Helena Moreno, the board chair, said she wanted to be sure that if residents subscribe to the internet service, Qualcomm and its partners will not in turn sell their personal data. âAt the end of the day, it’s for the public good, not for someone to really get rich off the backs of the people of New Orleans,â she said. âSo if this is really to be a public benefit, we have to make sure that people’s privacy is 100% protected. “
Nationwide privacy experts see several takeaways from the New Orleans experience. On the one hand, when city governments unveil smart city technology, they often imply that it was their original idea; but in reality much of the momentum comes from private companies, which aggressively market their products to municipal authorities (a point about which Rhodes has been transparent). Once the projects are launched, most of these companies remain out of the public eye. âHe’s the MO in this whole industry,â said Lee Tien, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Much of the work in this area will appear to the public with a government face, which then obscures the fact that there are these obscure private companies that actually have tentacles in each of these cities.”