Living in a networked city

Our homes and cities are becoming increasingly connected, by 2017 there will be free public Wi-Fi hotspots on London streets and by 2020 every house in the UK will have a smart meter. We’re working on a research project with Meredith Whittaker at Google Open Research to understand how these new technologies change our rights, and what the security and privacy implications of those changes are.

Aho Wifi
Immaterials: Light painting WiFi (Photo: Immaterials / Voy, Timo)

Digital privacy in physical space

From mass Nest outages to bins that track us, the impacts digital technology have on our lives are abundant, if not immediately obvious. Urbanists like Dan Hill have written ‘The street as a platform’ about how technologies changing cities shape our lives, Keller Easterling wrote Extrastatecraft about city infrastructure, and the Immaterials project made by Timo Arnall and Voy has helped make some of these invisible technologies a little more visible.

"Urbanists frequently analyse the urban values...associated with physical infrastructure...yet the discipline is under-rehearsed in an analysis of the [digital] infrastructure."

Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft

But what’s missing is a discussion about how these affect our rights. What does switching between networks mean for me in terms of who gets to see what I’m browsing? How much does the Wi-Fi of a home bleed into the street? Who owns the router that gets to see my phone’s MAC address as I meander through the city?

These are the kind of things Sarah touched on at Art, Design and Privacy last year. Sarah talked about security and privacy in the context of architecture, from the emergence of chimneys (that arguably give us the first concept of privacy), to what it means that we now have connected objects in our homes that we don’t control.

Sarah At Art Design Privacy
Sarah speaking at Art, Design and Privacy last year (Photo: Screenshot/dismagazine)


I’m writing this blog post from my local Library where the public Wi-Fi is provided by Spark. When I investigate further using Who is my ISP I discover that eclipse technologies is my Internet Service Provider. I don’t know who Spark or eclipse are, but I now have an indirect relationship with them via the Library. Even if I pore over the multi-page list of Terms and Conditions I just clicked ‘agree’ to, I probably won’t know what data they are collecting from me or how they’re using it.

As we move through spaces and connect to different networks and objects, we have relationships with lots of companies that we can’t see and are subject to the legal frameworks that sit within them. We want to develop ways of making these relationships and frameworks more visible in order to discover the security implications of them.

Next steps

We’re about halfway through the project now, so we’ll be writing more posts soon to unpack what we’ve learnt. If you’d like to know more, or if you’re working on something similar get in touch hello@projectsbyif.com

Ideas archive

Get in touch

If you’ve got any questions or fancy a coffee, get in touch