LIVE FROM CES 2019, LAS VEGAS: AT&T and officials from its smart city partners promised user privacy has been top of mind during the development of new use cases which require residents to download smartphone apps and share details including their location data.

The operator and the City of Los Angeles, California last week debuted a new smart city app called ShakeAlert which warns residents when there are earthquake tremors near them. The app uses location data to determine if users are in an impacted area.

In a meeting with journalists, Los Angeles deputy mayor Jeff Gorell noted data privacy was a “huge” priority throughout the app’s development, especially in light of a national debate on the topic spurred by questions about how social media giant Facebook shares user information.

Ted Ross, CIO for the City of Los Angeles, said steps have been taken to address privacy concerns from the start. For example, he said location data used by ShakeAlert is aggregated and anonymised, and personal information entered into the app’s preparation checklist is stored on users’ devices rather than the city’s servers.

“We see ourselves as stewards of our residents’ digital assets…we feel we understand in this rapidly digitising era how important citizen data is in that equation,” Ross said.

AT&T VP and GM of smart cities Mike Zeto similarly stated “privacy is first and foremost to us,” adding in the smart city segment the operator largely follows the privacy policies put in place by its municipal partners.

Zeto said AT&T doesn’t intend to sell the data collected by the smart city applications it has helped develop and launch. In many cases, it is the city deploying the app rather than AT&T, which owns the data, he added.

However, attempts to have smartphone manufacturers integrate key smart city apps into their operating systems could muddy the waters.

Ross argued users shouldn’t be required to download an app to access critical public safety information, and revealed city officials engaged both Google and Apple in discussions to either build the earthquake alert system into their platforms or offer it as a preloaded app.

Those conversations have failed to bear fruit so far, but it is unclear who would be in control of user data if phone manufacturers do eventually move in that direction.

Ross insisted data should remain in the hands of government officials: “I think somebody responsible should maintain control of it. I feel less concerned about the City of LA controlling things, managing data or having access to it, as much as some responsible government agency who has the best interest of the user in mind.”

Privacy has proved to be a recurring theme in the smart city space. At CES 2018, Verizon told MWL it was taking steps to secure data collected from infrastructure sensors and ensure data collected from individuals remained anonymised.