It’s already the case that major areas of our lives are intruded upon by surveillance technology, frequently, we’re told, for improved public safety and convenience. But Governing magazine this month examines what a fully wired city might look like. “City 2.0” or the “sentient city” could virtually sense every move you make and the environment around you. Many of the technologies sound perfectly innocuous, but others don’t so much.

Sensors gather outside temperatures and measure rainfall, plus they can monitor pollution. They’re also used in cities to pinpoint the location of gunfire so police can respond immediately, and more than two-dozen deploy them today. Cities in Texas, Iowa and Colorado are pursuing tools that would allow them to view energy use as each kilowatt is burned. License-plate readers are increasingly common.

Surveillance cameras can help control the flow of cars, but some cities also strongly believe they prevent crime and terrorism and have installed them by the thousands. A system in Chicago links more than 2,000 cameras. The subway in New York has over 4,300, while authorities there announced plans in 2006 to spend tens of millions for cameras and license-plate readers in the Lower Manhattan area, a project that’s become known as the “Ring of Steel.” High-tech gear in the Big Apple also notifies public-safety officials when an unknown presence is discovered in the sewer system.

According to Governing:

This [technology] helps officials send resources to the street corner where gangs are converging, manage traffic before it becomes congested, and respond to emergencies seamlessly – automatically – before they’re even reported. It may sound like science fiction, but the idea of a living, sentient city – one in which managers use real-time data to respond to events as they occur – isn’t the stuff of fantasy anymore. By creating intricately linked networks of cameras and sensors throughout an urban area, cities in the U.S. and elsewhere are already making great strides toward tracking weather conditions and traffic flow, to name a few, and then using that data to govern more effectively. … Alone, each of these blocks performs one discrete function for one purpose. But if a city fused all of those different data streams, it could create a place keenly aware of changes in the urban environment. … [Technology analyst Rob] Enderle likens the vision of sentient cities to the concept of ‘arcologies,’ the classic sci-fi notion of megalopolises made up of gargantuan, self-contained structures that house thousands of residents in an all-encapsulating environment.

How close to such a proposition are we willing to come?

Governing notes that Stockholm, Sweden, uses radio-frequency tags to track the automobiles of citizens as part of its congestion-pricing system. We reported on our blog last week that Mexico intends for hundreds of millions of its citizens to eventually have biometric data such as iris scans and fingerprints embedded in ID cards, and it recently signed a massive contract with Unisys Corp. to begin the process. Authorities there argue it will help the country fight organized crime and drug trafficking, our southern neighbor’s version of the war on terror. Unisys claims Americans are open to the idea of similarly using biometric data to enhance homeland security.

Many such technologies are implemented individually without a broader understanding of what they can become when integrated with one another in a way that makes government “keenly aware” of a city’s every breath. Perhaps what’s most chilling is the definition of “sentient,” the word used by Governing to describe the future. Wikipedia contributors define it as “the ability to feel or perceive subjectively.” It’s used to denote consciousness or the capacity to sense and experience something. “In science fiction, sentience is ‘personhood’: the essential quality that separates humankind from machines or animals.”

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.