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Amsterdam leads fight against data surveillance capitalism

The Dutch capital has developed a manifesto to guide the ethical implementation of Smart City technologies and is also at the forefront of the EU’s Decode project to create tools that protect citizens’ privacy.
Amsterdam Capitalist Surveillance Smart Cities Fightback

May 22, 2018

Dutch data privacy campaigner Marleen Stikker had a revelation of the ‘Big Brother’ potential of digital technologies in 1994, just ten years after the iconic date of Orwell’s 1984. As a founder of Digital City – Europe’s first virtual community – Stikker was offered a demonstration of the dark side of what were then emerging technologies. “I was behind a black screen, but I could see people logging in and follow everything they were doing on their computers. I said, ‘this is crazy. It’s not where we want to go’,” she says.

Stikker watched helplessly over the next two decades as the nightmare vision she had glimpsed became a reality, culminating in Facebook’s exploitation of personal data and the surveillance technologies that track citizens in Smart Cities worldwide. As President of the Waag Society, an Amsterdam research institute for technologies and social innovation, Stikker develops strategies to prevent data capitalists from exploiting Amsterdam’s citizens, but there’s still a long way to go, she says.

“There are a lot of truly bad actors, both digital companies and governments that have got away with taking advantage of people because we are still in a juvenile state in our understanding of the internet. Mark Zuckerberg knew exactly what he was doing when he exploited people’s high trust to make money out of their data. We’re seeing the same thing in Smart Cities, with citizens’ data being taken without permission,” she says.

Change of mindset

Stikker sees a glimmer of hope, however. She says there has been a change of mindset in Amsterdam in the past few years as the downsides of surveillance technologies have emerged. Like so many politicians world-wide, Amsterdam’s leaders began implementing smart technologies with religious fervour, before doubts crept in. “For a long time, there was a utopian belief it would help us save the world – we’d get more sustainability, more mobility and more security,” says Stikker. “But technology is never neutral. For the first time we hear local politicians discussing the invasive aspects because they’re losing control of their cities to capitalist data companies.”
A striking indication of the changing political will in the Dutch capital came when the Amsterdam Economic Board initiated a ‘Data Disclosed’ manifesto to guide the ethical use of citizens’ data. The aim of the Tada City manifesto, is to give citizens more control over the design of their digital city. Use of their data must be “transparent” and “held in common so all citizens can benefit”. The manifesto aims to “put humanity first” and “contribute to the freedom of citizens”.

A large consortium, including the Waag Society, contributed to creating the principles. “There’s never been such a huge appetite for regulation of data technologies. But the manifesto is just a start and we now need to develop rules for the future of the Amsterdam Smart City. The key question is ‘who is the data for when you retrieve it from the city?’,” Stikker says.

Media exposure

The exposure in the media of questionable practices in other Dutch cities has provided a useful warning to Amsterdam about the dangers of an overly technocratic approach. In some instances, media reports have forced local Dutch politicians into defending their surveillance of citizens and the outcry has caused a “great deal of embarrassment”. The Dutch city of Eindhoven, for example, was criticised for adopting a surveillance strategy on the busy ‘smart’ street of Stratumseind, which has lamp-posts fitted with wifi trackers, cameras and dozens of microphones to detect aggressive behaviour. All the data is collected and stored, even though that is against the principles of the Dutch Personal Data Protection Act, which states that people should be notified if their data is collected and given a reason. “This sort of ‘nudging’ and monitoring behaviour should not happen as it’s interfering in public spaces. It’s one thing we want to avoid in Amsterdam,” Stikker says.

A second well-publicized case is in Enschede, where city council sensors pick up phone wifi signals even when devices are not connected to networks. Stikker says this ‘permissionless’ data gathering is “absolutely crazy and unnecessary” and would be outlawed under the Tada City manifesto.

The Dutch city of Utrecht, meanwhile, is tracking the number of people hanging around on some streets. The system logs personal details, such as ages, how well the individuals know each other, and details of their behaviour. Special enforcement officers track the data on mobile devices, a process the city calls “targeted and innovative” supervision. “They try to justify their policies by saying they reduce bad behaviour and crime, but this kind of predictive data analysis creates more problems. The police start to monitor a place and people socially react to that,” she says.

Stikker believes deploying surveillance technologies exacerbates divisions in communities by denying the importance of social structures. What decreases crime, she says, is not obsessive monitoring, but the provision of meaningful, social environments. “The ICT community want us to believe that code is law and technology is an Act of God. But it’s a false argument to say you have to jeopardise your privacy in order to be safe. This is just propaganda and marketing. The rules and principles of technology use are made by men and women,” she says.

“There’s now a move at national government level to force tech companies give access to their algorithms, which would be a serious step towards accountability, transparency and democracy. They will say ‘it’s AI and we don’t know how it works’, but that’s not acceptable.”

Data privacy recently became a hot topic all over the Netherlands when a referendum was held in March on whether to give new powers to spy agencies. The Intelligence and Security Law would have allowed the agencies to install wire taps on whole areas, rather than just on individuals, store information for up to three years and share this data with other spy agencies. The students that campaigned for the referendum said the powers were an invasion of privacy, whereas Prime Minister Mark Rutte argued they were essential to fight terrorism. The students won, although the result is non-binding. “What the referendum showed was that there’s a growing number of Dutch people who are determined to fight back against our data surveillance culture,” she says.

‘Decoding’ data privacy

The EU has taken note of Amsterdam’s shifting attitude to technology and chose the city for a three-year project to improve the experience of data sharing. Barcelona, which has also transformed its approach, will collaborate with Amsterdam on the Decode (Decentralised Citizen Owned Data Ecosystem) project to create tools that allow Europeans to share personal information, or keep it private. By the end, the EU wants to develop an open architecture for managing data from online sources and smart technologies.

The Waag Society is responsible for running the two Amsterdam pilots. They will provide 1,000 citizens with an app to share data about themselves to help companies, or governments, create better services. Each citizen will decide how much personal data is uploaded and how it should be used. For example, a person might decide that location-tracking data about parks they visit can be used by the city council but not private companies. Individual data-sharing preferences will be stored on the blockchain – a digital ledger that securely stores data across a network of computers.

The first pilot in Amsterdam is a response to the disruption caused by sharing economy platforms such as Airbnb, which have pushed up rental prices. The Decode project will provide data for a collaboration between the Amsterdam Municipality and the FairBnB group without compromising anyone’s privacy. The second Amsterdam pilot focuses on the co-operative digital platform, Gebiedonline (Neighbourhood Online), which enables people to view local events, and network, in their neighbourhoods. Amsterdam City Council wants to spread the programmes city-wide, but in a way that protects the privacy of local networks, so residents decide what information to share.

Stikker remains “semi-optimistic” that initiatives like Tada City and the Decode Project can take Amsterdam in the right direction. But she also believes that a tough battle lies ahead. “It will be very difficult because we’re swimming against a powerful current,” she says. “Capital is pushing data capitalism as the ‘new oil’ and it won’t be easy to place technology in a social context with democratic control.”

However, she says that with the advent of GDPR legislation, and initiatives like Decode, Europe has a chance to take the lead globally in developing data protection policies. “We don’t want a Chinese model of state control over data and we don’t want the hyper-individual surveillance capitalist model of Silicon Valley. It’s a huge opportunity for Europe to find a better model,” she says.


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