Trading data privacy to make the city smarter

Professor IP Iam-chong


With the goal of optimising the flow of things, energy and information through cities, public authorities and private operators are seeking to access interconnected devices, such as mobile phones, surveillance cameras and barcode scanners, to collect personal data. Information on where individuals are, what they’re doing, and everything from their hobbies to their bio-data, can then be analysed and used.


Information technologies, especially Big Data, have changed notions of privacy, with details of the websites we visit, and payments we make, now constituting significant personal information. People’s awareness of, and concerns about, any such intrusions seem to vary across the platforms they access and the forms of connection they have to data capturing technology. Though incidents such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal have demonstrated the way in which private companies can use personal data to make money and skew elections, many people have seemed happy to trade off at least some of their privacy for the convenience of living in a smarter city.


In his latest research project, Privacy Challenges and Big Data in Smart City, Professor Ip Iam-chong of Lingnan’s Department of Cultural Studies and his collaborators are viewing the smart city as a new form of capitalism that creates original forms of opportunities and challenges for everyone. Professor Ip is working with Professor Lisa Leung Yuk-ming, also of Lingnan’s Cultural Studies Department, Hong Kong University’s Professor Fu King-wa, and Professor Leung Kai-chi of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, on the one-year study, which began in August 2019 and is backed by a HK$270,000 Public Policy Research Fund grant from the Hong Kong government’s Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office.


The project is designed to examine the issues involved from the bottom up, identifying the approaches private individuals are taking to the changing questions around privacy. The primary focus of Professor Ip’s research has been in the fields of Urban Studies and Contemporary China Studies, and here he is particularly interested in uncovering the way in which people are redefining their private domain, with the goal of making a contribution to the broader debate from a cultural studies perspective. 


As the Big Data environment continues to generate new forms of privacy, Professor Ip believes it’s very difficult, today, to clearly define the boundaries of personal data privacy.


So in this study he and his co-researchers have tried to single out some controversial issues, or incidents, and identify the key stakeholders involved. Via focus groups, they will then examine the way in which individuals perceive these issues and engage with them.


The introduction of smart lampposts on the streets of Hong Kong was first proposed by the government in 2017, as part of its Smart City project. At that time this was not considered a particularly controversial idea. However, once the SAR became engulfed in political turmoil, the technology came to be widely viewed with mistrust, and seen as a potential surveillance tool.


Professor Ip hopes that, as a piece of policy research, his project can help in the formulation of strategies to roll out such technology in a way that addresses people’s concerns and anxieties.


To know more about Professor Ip's research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.