The Downside to Smart Cities

I read almost daily about another smart city initiative somewhere in the country as cities implement ideas that they think will improve the quality of life for citizens. I just saw a statistic that says that over two-thirds of cities have now implemented some form of smart city technology. Some of the applications make immediately noticeable differences like smart electric grids to save power, smart traffic lights to improve traffic flow, and smart streetlights to save electricity.

But there are a few downsides to smart city technology that can’t be ignored. The two big looming concerns are privacy and security. There was an article in Forbes earlier this year that asked the question, “Are Privacy Concerns Halting Smart Cities Indefinitely?” Citizens are pushing back against smart city initiatives that indiscriminately gather data about people. People don’t trust the government to not misuse personal data.

Some smart city initiatives don’t gather data. For instance, having streetlights that turn off when there is nobody in the area doesn’t require gathering any data on people. But many smart city applications gather mountains of data. Consider smart traffic systems which might gather massive amounts of data if implemented poorly. Smart traffic systems make decisions about when to change lights based upon looking at images of the cars waiting at intersections. If the city captures and stores those images, it accumulates a massive database of where drivers were at specific times. If those images are instantly discarded, never stored and never available for city officials to view then a smart traffic system would not be invading citizen privacy. But the natural inclination is to save this information. For instance, analysts might want to go back after a traffic accident to see what happened. And once the records are saved, law enforcement might want to use the data to track criminal behavior. It’s tempting for a city to collect and store data – all for supposedly good reasons – but eventually, the existence of the data can lead to abuse.

Many people are very leery of systems that capture public video images. If you look at smart city sales literature, it’s hard to find sensor systems that don’t toss in video cameras as part of any street sensor device. I just saw a headline saying that over 400 police departments now partner with Ring, the video cameras people install at their front door – which allow police to have massive numbers of security cameras in a city. It’s incredibly easy for such systems to be abused. Nobody is uncomfortable with using surveillance systems to see who broke into somebody’s home, but it’s highly disturbing if a policeman is using the same system to stalk an ex-wife. Video surveillance isn’t the only sensitive issue and smart city technology can gather all sorts of data about citizens.

What I find scarier is security since smart city systems can be hacked. Security experts recently told Wired that smart city networks are extremely vulnerable to hacking. Municipal computer systems tend to be older and not updated as regularly. Municipal computer systems have the same problems seen in corporations – weak passwords, outdated and ignored security patches, and employees that click on spam emails.

Smart city networks are more vulnerable to attack than corporate networks that sit behind layered firewalls because a smart city network can be attacked at the sensor edge devices. It’s well known that IoT devices are not as rigorously updated for security as other components of computer networks. I’ve seen numerous articles of hackers who were able to quickly defeat the security of IoT devices.

While there might be a concern that city employees will abuse citizen data there is no doubt that hackers will. It’s not hard to envision hackers causing mischief by messing with traffic lights. It’s not hard to envision terrorists paralyzing a city by shutting down everything computer-related.

But the more insidious threat is hackers who quietly gain access to city systems and don’t overtly cause damages. I have one city client that recently found a system they believe has been compromised for over a decade. It’s not hard to envision bad actors accessing video data as a tool to use for burglary or car theft. It’s not hard to imagine a bad actor selling the data gathered on city networks to players on the dark web.

I’m not against smart city technology, and that’s not the point of this blog. But before a city deploys networks of hundreds of thousands of sensors, they need to have planned well to protect citizen data from misuse by city employees and by abuse from hackers. That sounds like a huge challenge to me and I have to wonder how many cities are capable of doing it right. We’ve seen numerous large corporations get hacked. Smart city networks with huge numbers of sensors are far less secure and look to be an open invitation to hackers.

3 thoughts on “The Downside to Smart Cities

  1. You’re right — traffic cameras can gather a lot of data. But there’s a cost for storing a lot of it.

    There’s also the nuisance of having to go back and find stuff in response to civil subpoenas for accident footage. This is for the lawsuits between drivers that follow traffic accidents. Fooling with this gets to be time-consuming for thinly staffed traffic signal departments and it’s not as if their city is a party to the litigation. For this reason, some signals departments don’t store video footage for more than several days or weeks.

    Like

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