The Age-Old Debate: Security vs. Privacy – What’s the Right Balance? By Elizabeth Carter, Chief Security Officer at Armored Things

I spoke recently at a conference on the topic of smart cities and security, and specifically on security-related projects implemented on a district scale. In preparing my remarks, I reflected back on my days working in emergency management for the City of New York and recalled the successes of programs like the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative. While I wasn’t personally involved with this public-private partnership, it is often touted as one of the earliest – and most successful – smart city initiatives in the world. However, it hasn’t been without its detractors and controversies, and it reflects the changing perceptions of privacy and security over the years since it was first implemented.

In New York City in the years following 9/11, increased security measures were widely accepted, even at the expense of some measure of personal privacy. I remembered gathering with personnel from the city’s emergency services agencies for a live disaster drill in 2011. New Yorkers from the neighborhood, after inquiring as to what we were doing, offered us coffee and opened their doors to us. A positive sentiment toward our efforts was something we had all grown accustomed to, even as the years passed after 9/11 and the overwhelming support citizens gave first responders in the aftermath faded. 10 years later, New Yorkers still seemed to accept that securing their city against a myriad of ever-changing threats involved giving up some measure of privacy.  

A few years ago, I relocated to San Francisco and discovered very different cultural ideas about privacy versus security. Friends in the emergency management world described protesters at counter-terrorism drills decrying the “police state,” something that I found shocking after dedicating my career to these sorts of efforts with the intent of serving my community. My fiancé, a native San Franciscan, tried to explain this phenomenon by describing widespread distrust of law enforcement, his mother’s experience with police harassment at Berkeley in the 1960s, and citizens’ exhaustion with marijuana-related stops and other minor offenses. So when I spoke about New York City’s security successes at that conference on the west coast, I was met with some “big brother” tweets accusing me of disregarding privacy. While this didn’t surprise me after learning more about these cultural differences, I took the opportunity to discuss the issue with peers and colleagues and gauge their feelings and concerns on the topic. 

While technology has improved security and quality of life around the world, fears remain about the potential dark side of  “smart city” technology. I came across an example of this years ago where a foreign government was using security technology, ostensibly rolled out to protect civilians, to also keep tabs on them. As a security professional with a career dedicated to making our cities safer, this was especially upsetting to me, and one of the reasons that I firmly believe in using aggregate rather than individual data. On the other end of the spectrum, I learned that a major west coast city recently elected to take its shot detection system offline in the face of privacy concerns.

Smart city security projects and other related technologies hold great promise. As we have seen, early rollouts have notched many successes and saved lives. But privacy considerations are a major concern for many people, and we at Armored Things are focused on these issues as we develop our products. At Armored Things, privacy is one of our main priorities. As we continue to explore these issues, we strive to maintain an open dialogue with partners, peers, and practitioners, and seek the balance that protects the public without violating privacy rights.

Elizabeth Carter