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.

The Internet of Everywhere

tostitos-logoForget the Internet of Things. That is already passé and I saw something yesterday that made me realize we have now moved on to the Internet of Everywhere.

Tostitos has put out a special ‘party bag’ of chips for the SuperBowl. The bag contains a chip and a tiny sensor that can detect traces of alcohol on your breath when you breathe on it. If you test as intoxicated the bag will light up red and flash “Don’t Drink and Drive.” But that’s only the beginning. If you set off the red flash you can tap the bag against your smartphone and it will automatically call Uber and give you a $10 discount on your ride.

This is obviously a super-cool marketing idea and I expect the company to sell lots of bags of chips and will get a lot of positive press. And I would expect a lot of people will strive to make the bag flash red. But this demonstrates how cheap computer chips have become when a company can design a campaign using millions of chips in throwaway bags for a one-time promotion. This goes to show how amazingly small sensors have become that this bag can give you a mini-breathalyzer. I’m sure the test is not super-accurate, but the very fact that it can do this and still be affordable is amazing.

Engineers have been predicting this sort of technology for a few years. For example, there are now chips that can be printed onto human skin and can act as a keypad for your smartphone. We are not far away from having chips printed on every grocery item in the store, which will simplify checkout and will fully automate inventory control. With cheap chips we can literally sprinkle sensors throughout a farm field to cheaply monitor for the localized need for water, fertilizer or the presence of pests.

The real Internet of Things isn’t going to be unleashed until we can develop affordable swarms of sensors and also provide a way for them to communicate with each other. Today the IoT is being used mainly to monitor factory production and in homes for alarm monitoring and other similar functions. But the revolutionary value of IoT will come when it can grow to be the Internet of Everywhere.

Then we can have constant monitors inside our blood stream to sense for diseases and to fight them off early. We can monitor sensitive environmental areas to protect endangered wildlife. We can monitor our homes to a degree never done before – want to know if a mouse just snuck in – done!

There have been a lot of breakthroughs in creating small, low-power sensors. But the real challenge is still to find a way to communicate easily and reliably with a cloud of sensors. We are not going to be able to create a WiFi path with a thousand different home sensors but will need some sort of mesh technology that can first collect and make sense of what the sensors are telling us.

But I have no doubt that if a potato chip bag can tell me if I’ve had too much to drink and can then call for a ride to take me home, that we are making great progress.

And as I write this blog I’m sitting here thinking of if only I could show this bag to one of my long-passed grandparents. What would they ever make of this flashing chip bag, of my smartphone and of Uber? But then again, perhaps their biggest question might first be, “What is a Tostito?”

Coming Technology Trends

618486main_earth_fullI love to look into the future and think about where the various technology trends are taking us. Recently, Upfront Ventures held a conference for the top technology venture capital investors and before that conference they asked those investors what they foresaw as the biggest technology trends over the next five years. Five years is not the distant future and it’s interesting to see where the people that invest in new businesses see us heading in that short time. Here were the most common responses:

Talent Goes Global. Innovation and tech talent has most recently been centered in the US, Europe, Japan and China. But now there are tech start-ups everywhere and very talented young technologists to be found in all sorts of unlikely places.

For many years we have warned US kids that they are competing in a worldwide economy, and this is finally starting to come true. In a fully networked world it’s getting easier to collaborate with the brightest people from around the world, and that’s a much larger talent pool. The days of Silicon Valley being the only places developing the next big thing are probably behind us.

Sensors Everywhere. There will be a big increase in sensors that are going to supply us feedback about the world around us and will provide feedback in ways that were unimaginable. Assuming that we can find a way to tackle the huge influx of big data in real time we are going to have a whole new way to look at much of our world.

There will be sensors on farms, in factories, in public places and in our homes and businesses that will begin providing a wide array of feedback on the environment around us. There are currently hundreds of companies working on medical monitors that are going to be able to tell us a lot more about ourselves, which will allow us to track and treat diseases and allow older folks to stay in their homes longer.

The First Real Commercial A.I. It’s hard to go a week these days without hearing about an A.I platform that has solved the same kinds of issues we face every day. A.I. systems are now able to learn things from scratch, on their own, and self-monitor to improve their performance in specific applications.

This opens up the possibility of automating huge numbers of repetitive processes. I have a friend who is a CPA who has already automated the tax preparation process and he can go from bank accounts and create a set of books and tax returns in an hour or two – a process that used to take a week or longer. And soon it will be totally automated and not require much human assistance at all until the finished product is ready for review. People think that robots are going to take over physical tasks – and they will – but before then expect to see a huge wave of the automation of paperwork processes like accounting, insurance claim processing, mortgage and credit card approval and a long list of other clerical and white collar tasks.

Better Virtual Reality. The first generation of virtual reality is now hitting the market. But with five more years of development the technology will find its way into many facets of our lives. If you haven’t tried it yet, the first generation VR is pretty spectacular, but its potential is almost mind-blowing when plotting it out on a normal path of technical improvements and innovations.

New Ways to Communicate. The VR investors think that we are on the verge of finding new ways to communicate. Already today a lot of our forms of communication have moved to messaging platforms and away from phone calls and email. With the incorporation of A.I. the experts predict a fully integrated communications system that easily and automatically incorporates all kinds of communications mediums. And with the further introduction and use of bots companies will be able to automatically join in conversations without needing piles of people for much of it.