Explained: Smart surveillance signage by Google's Sidewalk Labs

Understand the universal signage system proposed by Google's Sidewalk Labs to show when smart systems are collecting data

Sidewalk Labs is a part of Google.
Sidewalk Labs is a part of Google.

The growing conversation about city surveillance in the US and Europe, particularly the use of facial recognition technology, is highlighting how the issue of end-user comfort and consent may interrupt a city’s ability to gather data.

Now, Sidewalk Labs, Google’s urban ideas lab, is developing a proposal that would go some way to encouraging disclosure by city authorities and to alert residents when they are being monitored, giving them a way to find out more about the applications in use and why their city might be watching them.

Sidewalk Labs has developed a draft for a set of universal signs that would be displayed on streets when smart city systems are observing people and provide some explanation as to why and how much data is being recorded.

The new signage could be used in situations where systems such as CCTV, lane counters, and occupancy sensors are monitoring people in public places, as explained by Construction Week's sister title Smart Cities Arabia.

The signs, which would look something like hazardous materials signs, would be used to convey to the public what sort of system was active, and whether or not it was recording identifiable data. The signage would also include the name of the company or entity responsible for the system, and a QR code containing more information and linking to a feedback mechanism.

In a blog post, Sidewalk Labs' principal designer, Patrick Keenan, and legal associate, Chelsey Colbert, said that the signs would help make people aware of the systems around them, give them a way to find out more about the technology and to ask questions about it. It would also help to support principles of digital transparency and privacy.

The Sidewalk Labs team noted that several cities have already begun posting notices when digital systems are deployed in the public realm, but that many such signs are hard to read and cannot adequately communicate the information in a succinct fashion.

“There’s little transparency about what data these technologies are collecting, by whom, and for what purposes,” the blog authors wrote.

“Signage that does appear in the public realm often contains either small snippets, which give no indication of how to follow up or ask more questions, or multiple paragraphs of dense text.”

Sidewalk Labs' proposed signage will be a universal set of icons, hexagonal in shape, that will use icons to communicate specific concepts.

One hexagon conveys the purpose of the technology; another, the logo of the entity responsible for the technology; and a third contains a QR code that takes the individual to a digital channel where they can learn more about the system.

A fourth hexagon, which will be colour-coded, conveys privacy information, such as the type of sensing technology being used and whether it is recording identifiable data about the public or not.

“We strongly believe that people should know how and why data is being collected and used in the public realm, and we also believe that design and technology can meaningfully facilitate this understanding.

“For these reasons, we embarked on a collaborative project to imagine what digital transparency in the public realm could be like,” said Keenan and Colbert.

“Together with more than 100 participants from several cities, we sketched, debated, iterated, and prototyped a visual language that offers a quick way to understand the technology around us — and a means to easily learn more.”

The proposal also includes plans for a standardised digital channel, which would display in an app or online, which would spell out the purpose and ownership of the technology, in an easy-to-understand ‘chain’.

The idea is that the user can open the chain from the QR code in the signage, and access additional data in the form of three categories of information: the hardware and purpose of the technology, the software and data it uses, and the means of storage. Each category is represented by a different shape.

The chain begins with icons conveying the responsible organisation, the purpose the technology serves, and the type of technology it is; this information is contained in hexagons, mirroring the signs observed in the physical world.

Response to Sidewalk Labs' proposal has been mixed. While some have welcomed the initiative, others have pointed out that short of vacating an area where a smart city system is monitoring them, residents don’t have a lot of say whether they are being recorded or not.

As the proliferation of city systems continues, however, awareness through street signs appears to be a straightforward method to drive the conversation forward. 

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