In preparation for the drafting in 2020 by the Governance Committee of the “Smart cities” report, the debate held by the Chamber of Local Authorities on 30 October 2019 on smart cities and cybersecurity launched a call for contributions to Congress members. Following a statement by Professor A. Prosser, the speakers focused on both the management potential which intelligent technologies offer and also the dangers they pose as regards respect for civic and human rights.
The Congress will examine its first report on “Smart cities” in 2020. Advanced technologies are a huge issue for local democracy: they could help the authorities to make urban life more democratic, inclusive and ecological while improving mobility, security and pollution control. Several speakers gave details of positive experiences with CCTV systems, seismic prevention and interaction between local elected representatives and citizens to bring about more transparent governance, etc. Nevertheless, the participants stressed the urgent need to draw up ethical and legal rules to prevent authoritarian excesses or abuses in the health sector.
The statement by Professor Alexander Prosser from the University of Economics and Business in Vienna highlighted the tremendous advances made by cyber technology over the past 20 years: the collapse in the price of sensors, the development of the cloud and mobile interfaces and, above all, the spectacular reduction in computer processing times, with processes that used to take 11 days now taking only a second. Algorithms can predict users’ reactions and offer solutions before citizens even express their views. While the establishment of 5G networks will mark a decisive step towards real-time co-ordination between multiple interfaces and services, it could also end up leading to authoritarian excesses that undermine freedom.
At the same time, several speakers raised the issue of Europe falling behind in the production of software for 5G, which requires very powerful computer hardware. To date, only a few countries and companies can actually supply the basic components, essentially the United States, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. This situation raises the issue of the ability of European countries, towns and cities to counter hacker attacks and protect their IT networks against unwarranted surveillance. Several youth delegates therefore spoke up during the debate to warn about the risk of using the technology concerned not to make towns and cities more democratic but, on the contrary, to replace the will of citizens, whose choices would be determined in advance.
“How can we guarantee the health security and integrity of our fellow citizens who are contacting us with concerns about the risks linked to the introduction of 5G?” was the question put by Ms Heather McVey (United Kingdom). Could consideration be given to the Council of Europe taking on a certification role in this area? The various contributions by the delegates highlighted a number of other risks linked to the development of the Internet of things and smart cities, including the lack of reliable scientific advice concerning the health risks of 5G, reductions in the number of jobs in government bodies, disparities between urban and rural areas and identity theft by cybercrime networks.
Ms Brigitte Van den Berg (Netherlands) summed up the whole complexity of the situation by underlining that technology was always one step ahead of politics, hence the need to draw up fundamental rules for digital society that could protect democracy and citizens’ private lives upstream.
In her view and that of many other speakers, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities could draw up a Common Charter on Smart Cities to prevent the fundamental values of democracy and human rights being eroded by excessively chaotic use of new technology in the area of governance. Some other speakers also believed that the establishment of digital training centres for the public could be vital, given that artificial intelligence was taught in China from primary school level.