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‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’

Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

September 29, 2017
11 min read


Jathan SadowskiJathan Sadowski writer and postdoc research fellow in smart cities @jathansadowski


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Not long ago, the apartment complex where I live decided to upgrade its security by installing gates at every entrance. Opening these gates requires a plastic fob, which works like a keycard (by pressing it against a receiver at the pedestrian gate) and like a garage door opener (by clicking a button on it for the vehicle gate). The new electronic entrances seemed unnecessary, but I thought they would just be a minor inconvenience; one more step to go through, another thing hanging on my keychain.

However, as if to demonstrate how arbitrarily they can exercise control over access to my apartment, the complex’s managers did not ensure the security system worked properly before installing it. So for weeks my fob would only work part of the time, effectively locking me out of my home until a fellow resident came along and let me in from the inside. Or, if I were feeling adventurous, I could attempt to climb the concrete wall and metal gate. People began trying to prop the gate open, but the complex’s workers were ordered to remove any props. It didn’t matter that the control system wasn’t operating the way it was intended. Its integrity had to be maintained and its commands had to be obeyed.

The other residents and I were forced to experience the exact frustration that Gilles Deleuze described in his prescient 1992 essay ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’: ‘[Imagine] a city where one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighborhood, thanks to one’s … electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position – licit or illicit – and effects a universal modulation.’ When Deleuze originally wrote this example it sounded like cyber-punk science fiction, but now it is a realistic description of modern cities.

Compared to other possible consequences of control, the electronic gates were only relatively inconvenient and annoying. But they illustrate the control logic that colonises everyday life, filling it with checkpoints that regulate access and enforce exclusion. When everything matches up, when everything works smoothly and efficiently, we have no cause to pause. We hardly notice the systems that are constantly monitoring us – until they decide your ‘password’ is invalid.

This article explores three techno-political trends that are converging in powerful ways. By following the logic of those trends I sketch two short snapshots that portray plausible near futures. I end by reflecting on features of an informational right to the city that would help derail the realisation of these wicked outcomes. In short, my goal is to provide a warning about where we are heading if we do not change course.

Techno-political trends

1. Cities around the world are being permeated with so-called ‘smart’ systems composed of ubiquitous sensing, data collection, real-time analytics, networked things, algorithmic processes, and central command centres. As an urban planning and governance movement, smart urbanism constructs the city as a ‘system of systems’ – which can be rendered legible and observable, treated as knowable and understandable, subjected to regimes of surveillance and control. The aim is for people and places to be totally monitored, measured, and managed. The smart city is not just a way of bringing the convenient and cool capabilities of the smart home into the street; rather, this scaling-up involves a categorical shift in the purpose and power of these technological systems. They are fundamentally about infrastructural and civic applications. They are the kind of systems that constitute the techno-political ordering of society.

2. Many powerful organisations – tech companies, finance firms, and government agencies – are, as Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy put it, ‘culturally impelled by a data imperative and powerfully equipped with the tools to enact it.’ This imperative demands the extraction of all data, from all sources, in whatever ways possible, whether there is current use for it or not. Practices of dataveillance have become so common and so varied that few people know about the systems that target them in homes, stores, streets, online, and nearly everywhere else. These systems are used to create data dossiers about each of us, they fuse and analyse data from many sources, they sort and slice us into categories, and they do so largely without our awareness and input.

3. People are subjected to innumerable scoring systems – innumerable because many of them are secretive products of guarded industries like insurance, finance, and security. These scores are created by (proprietary) algorithms applied to massive databases composed of anywhere from hundreds to billions of data points about individuals and groups. Scores reduce people to single numbers that are then used to assess, judge, rank, classify, and stratify. A few examples include: financial scores that regulate access to credit, employment and housing; threat scores that alert police to the danger posed by a person, address, or area; reputational scores that segment people according to their consumer behavior, social standing, economic position, and political activities. Such scores are often the outcome of opaque processes, preventing them from being challenged or changed. Despite the long list of issues related to accuracy and accountability, scoring systems continue to expand into more parts of society.

Imminent futures

The following snapshots are based on only somewhat intensified versions of existing systems. They are not outlandish fictions, scientific or political. Nor are they meant to be like the crystal ball predictions that naïve futurists peddle. The short scenarios I portray are plausible and achievable in the very near future. The unnamed city in each snapshot is influenced by a US context. However, precursors to the technologies and policies I describe are present in cities around the world. Similar situations are emerging in places from London and Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg and Singapore.

Snapshot 1. ‘We’re sorry,’ reads the screen on the gated entry to the boutique mall, ‘our systems indicate that your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location. Access denied.’ The gate’s auto-locks engage, while notifications sent to private security forces alert them to a possible situation.

Few urban spaces are truly public anymore. Parks, monuments, neighborhoods, and shopping areas are now products of private management. They are patrolled by security forces, governed by conduct codes, and enclosed by physical barriers. The ‘business improvement districts’ used to carve out parts of the city – and formally hand socio-political control of them to private property owners – were a step towards making cities more entrepreneurial. However, the managerial problem plaguing these landlords remains the effective regulation of access. That is now changing thanks to smart solutions. While they once had to rely on reactive tactics like harassing people who aren’t welcome, they now marshal proactive technologies against people with the wrong profile. It is easier to prevent access than to kick out.

With the help of data systems and automatic enforcement, the city is filled with enclaves that impede or allow mobility. These checkpoints ensure that places can be governed with surgical precision. The credit score detectors target low-net-worth undesirables for ejection, while also identifying high-net-worth VIPs who will be given special attention and perks. Your civic profile – the calculated aggregation of all your ‘relevant activities’, whatever that means – may ward off suspicion and (literally) open doors, or it might trigger risk protocols like proactive searches and monitoring.

People are subjected to many other scoring systems. They simultaneously expand the horizons of some while constraining the possibilities of others. The beauty of score-based auto-enforcement is that the right kinds of people no longer have to deal with the security theatre – and the inconvenience and discomfort it produces – used to weed out and deter nuisances. For others, though, the presence of inhumane, non-human security technologies is bluntly apparent. But hey, if you work hard, make responsible decisions, and please the score-makers, then maybe you too can experience the joys of a city where the frictions of everyday life drop away.

Snapshot 2. ‘Alert! Due to your abnormally high threat score you are not permitted to be in this zone. Exit immediately or be detained and deported.’ The announcement blares from the speakers on the drone, drowning out the whir of its quadcopter blades. The drone’s ‘sub-lethal’ armaments – pepper spray balls, dye markers, mid-range tasers – are more than capable of subduing noncompliant targets.

The old ways of keeping a community safe were so crude and manpower intensive: nosy residents channeled their energy into being neighbourhood watchers; cops patrolled the streets in slow-rolling cruisers; pedestrians were deemed suspicious if they fit the description of an outsider. These methods changed once cities began instituting ‘safety zones,’ which designated certain areas of the city as protected sectors that were a privilege to enter, not a right. What signalled access? Your data is the key to entry. There is no longer a need to rely on biased profiling, when each person has a data dossier – which collates countless data points and applies analytics to paint a picture of your past, present, and future.

Moreover, a vast network of surveillance systems continuously monitors, encodes, and analyses the city at multiple layers. There is little that happens without being recorded. The ultimate goal is to break free of spatial and temporal constraints by capturing all data. With enough processing power and storage capacity, past instances and future scenarios of the city – not just a person – can be modeled and examined. In effect, one can press rewind on the city, pause it at any point, and watch it unfold over time. Or, hit fast-forward and devise models used to inform predictive policing and anticipatory planning. These technologies provide police and city managers with powerful capacities for urban governance. Rather than confronting the vagaries of a chaotic system, they can bring order to the city.

Reflections on an informational right

By following current techno-political logics, we see how Information and Communication Technology (ICT) systems can be used to promote further stratification, overt exclusion, and automatic enforcement. These snapshots should be seen as, hopefully, self-preventing prophecies. However, resisting the erosion of democratic ideals like equity, access, and fairness will not come easily. People must be empowered and mobilised to act against injustice and subjugation. One method of doing so arises from affirming an informational right to the city. Such a right ought to operate in multiple forms: as a slogan, as a social movement, as a political antagonism.

According to David Harvey, ‘The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.’ We make the city, and the city makes us. In a time when the urban environment is crisscrossed, undergirded, and overlaid with digitality, the corollary is: We make data, and data makes us. We thus have – and must claim hold of – ‘the right to command the whole urban process’.

An informational right recognises the critical importance of ICT in that urban process. It is a rallying call for snatching back power from the political and technical elites who reconfigure the city as a platform for corporate smartness. It is a banner that says, ‘We will not allow you to extract data from people and places, only so you can then use that data to dispossess us of control over our cities, ourselves.’

An informational right is more than a request for transparency and accuracy. It does not seek to ratify systems of exclusion and enforcement, as if they would be legitimate if only we could see their mechanisms and correct our data-driven profiles. The right is a demand for antagonism, an affirmation of techno-political contestations. It is an open and ongoing dissent: against the stabilisation of power through technocratic justifications; against the securitised enclosure of the city; against stratification by data-driven scores and autocratic enforcement; and against allowing the city, and thus ourselves, to be molded by elite interests.

An informational right is a declaration that the city is for all of us – and we will not tolerate techno-political arrangements that deny us that right.

This article is from a collection titled Our Digital Rights to the City. You can access the full booklet at meatspacepress.org. The collection was edited by Joe Shaw and Mark Graham, with design by Irene Beltrame. More about the author of this piece at jathansadowski.com


Jathan SadowskiJathan Sadowski writer and postdoc research fellow in smart cities @jathansadowski


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