Governing Privacy in the Datafied City

Artificial Intelligence and Privacy and Security

Article Snapshot


Bilyana Petkova and Ira Rubinstein


Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 755-827, 2020


Privacy is necessary for cities to remain politically and culturally diverse. Large cities initiate lawsuits to protect citizens’ privacy, but also collect large amounts of data, and may not protect privacy consistently.

Policy Relevance

Large cities have considerable power to regulate privacy. Cities use technological and legal means to protect privacy.

Main Points

  • Privacy is necessary for people to enjoy the diversity of urban life; smart technologies could turn cities into surveilled spaces, unless local resistance and legal action maintain privacy protections.
  • Study of the role of cities in protecting privacy supplements scholarship on federalism (usually involving study of relations between national and state governments) and localism (the study of relations between municipal and state governments).
  • The most populous cities enjoy “agglomeration effects,” having a large market share and considerable political and cultural power; these cities may insist that private firms protect privacy.
    • State laws preempt some types of municipal regulation, but generally have not restricted municipal privacy regulation.
    • Cities engage in privacy activism and data stewardship.
  • As privacy activists, large cosmopolitan cities in the U.S. use public interest litigation to assert citizens’ interests in protecting personal information; city-sponsored suits have challenged:
    • Citizenship questions in the 2020 census.
    • Facebook’s data sharing with the third-party political analysis group Cambridge Analytica.
    • A data breach involving Equifax.
  • Cities act as data stewards, collecting, analyzing, and acting on citizens’ consumer data as providers of municipal services; cities negotiate with private firms to use data to offer “smart” transit, housing, utility, telecommunications, and environmental services.
  • Cities may require firms like Uber and Airbnb to share data with city officials, sometimes showing little or no concern for privacy; some city ordinances violate Fourth Amendment rights of privacy.
  • Cities in North America and Europe have formed data trusts for managing shared economic data in the public interest; data is protected legally, and by sophisticated technological measures.
    • Seattle formed a Transportation Data Collaborative to support data-driven transportation policy.
    • In Toronto, a smart city project intended to develop the waterfront became controversial, as data-sharing agreements failed to address surveillance concerns.
    • In Spain, a highly centralized nation, Barcelona seeks to develop a smart city on the theory that data should be owned by the city.

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