About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

When billboards stare back: how cities can reclaim the digital public space

Our physical public areas – town squares, pedestrian zones, shopping centres and bus stops – are increasingly subject to unfettered digitalisation. Examples include the ubiquitous security camera translating everyday street life into digital images, wi-fi tracking devices to count customers and analyse their shop journeys, or automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) to register real-world cars and their holders into a searchable database. Written by Dr Tomislav Maršić.

Where such sensors are installed by commercial actors without making sure citizens can properly consent, we become unwitting objects of pervasive privacy infringements that we don’t have the chance to opt out of.

To shed some light on this little-known problem, this report seeks to showcase examples of how commercial sensors are used in city spaces, what those cities affected have been able to do about it and what other cities could take away from such experiences.

Recommendations for cities and local authorities

The report sets out a number of concrete actions cities can take to increase their influence and effectiveness in protecting the data of their residents and visitors.

  • Make effective and smart use of the powers and instruments that cities already have, such as licensing and purchasing, so that commercial parties handle the use of sensors in public space responsibly.

  • Engage citizens, civil society and commercial parties in a bottom-up manner. Take on a communicative and mediating role.

  • Integrate privacy expertise across local authority departments.

  • Amend the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by introducing a duty to report Data Protection Impact Assessments to local authorities and regulators relating to sensors in publicly accessible spaces. This would bring GDPR out of ‘online only’ and into the physical, offline world.