The Pushback Against Smart Cities

If you follow the smart city movement in the US you’ll quickly see that Kansas City, Missouri touts itself as the nation’s smartest city. The smart city movement got an early launch there when the City was announced as the first major market for Google Fiber. That gigabit fiber network attracted numerous small tech start-ups and the City also embraced the idea of being a technology leader.

The city’s primary smart city venture so far has been to bring smart city technology to a 54-block area in downtown. But this area only covers about 1% of the total area of the City. The City is currently contemplating expanding the smart city into the neglected east side neighborhoods near downtown. This is an area with boarded up storefronts and vacant lots, and the hope is that investing in smart city will bring a boost to this area as a way to kick-start economic development.

So far the primary smart city applications include smart parking, smart intersections, smart water meters and smart streetlights. The city also installed video surveillance cameras along the 2.2-mile downtown corridor.  The existing deployment also includes public WiFi provided through 25 kiosks placed throughout the smart city neighborhood. As of last fall there had been a reported 2.7 million log-ins to the WiFi network.

In the east side expansion WiFi will take on a more significant role since it’s estimated that only 40% of the residents in that area have home broadband today – far below the national average of 85%. The city is also looking to implement a rapid transit bus line into the east side as part of the smart grid expansion.

The new expansion into the east side is slated to have more surveillance including new features like gun shot detectors. There has been public fear voiced that this system can be used to disadvantage the largely minority population of the area.

The biggest hurdle to an expanded smart city services is money. The initial deployment was done through a public-private partnership. The city contributed $3.7 million, which it largely borrowed. Sprint, which manages the WiFi network contributed about $7 million and Cisco invested $5 million. The cost to expand the smart city everywhere has been estimated to cost half a billion.

It is the public-private partnerships that bring a troublesome aspect to the smart city concept. It’s been reported that Sprint collects data from those who log in to the free WiFi network – information like home zip code and results of Internet searches. It’s also been reported that Sprint can track people who have once subscribed to the service, even if they don’t log in. Sprint won’t say how it collects and uses customer data – but as we are learning throughout the tech world, it is the monetization of customer data that fuels many ISPs and online services.

There is also growing public concern about surveillance cameras. It’s starting to become clear that Americans don’t want to be tracked by cameras, especially now with the advent of decent facial recognition technology. We saw Seattle have to tear down a similar surveillance network before it ever went into service. We’re seeing huge pushback in Toronto about a proposed smart city network that includes surveillance.

We only have to look at China to see an extreme example of the misuse of this technology. The country is installing surveillance in public places and in retail areas and tracks where people are and what they do. China has carried this to such an extreme that they are in the process of implementing a system that calculates a ‘citizen score’ for every person. The country goes so far as to notify employers of even minor infractions of employees like jaywalking.

It’s going to be an uphill battle, perhaps one that never can be won for US cities to implement facial recognition tracking. People don’t want the government to be tracking where they are and what they do every time they go out into public. The problem is magnified many times when private companies become part of the equation. As much as the people in Kansas City might not fully trust the City, they have far less reason to trust an ISP like Sprint. Yet the smart city networks are so expensive it’s hard to see them being built without private money – and those private partners want a chance to get a return on their investment.

Regulatory Shorts – July 2016

Scale_of_justice_2_newThere are some interesting things happening in courts lately that will be of concern to ISPs.

ISPs Might be Liable for Customer Piracy. In two court decisions, courts have said that ISPs can be held responsible by piracy committed by ISP customers. In the Alexandria, VA district court a jury found Cox Communications liable of copyright infringement from a lawsuit brought by BMG, the music publisher. BMG had argued that Cox should have disconnected customers who violate copyrights. There was a similar ruling in Manhattan district court against RCN, also brought by BMG. Both companies are currently vigorously fighting the rulings. This kind of ruling could have a chilling impact on ISPs. Net neutrality rules would make it hard, and maybe illegal, to block sites like BitTorrent. And yet ISPs might somehow be liable for what customers do on piracy sites.

Internet Firms Not Necessarily Liable for False Information. On May 16 the FCC handed down a narrow victory to Spokeo.com. The company had been sued by a Virginia resident who said that the site contained errors about his age, education, employment, and marital status. The court said that the plaintiff could not sue without having proven any real damage from the bad information.

The case was watched closely by Facebook, Google, and other internet firms that are worried about a negative impact from having inaccurate data. The court ruling seems to make it unlikely that class action suits could be brought against internet companies, but it did open the door to individual suits when real damage could be claimed.

Fourth Amendment Does Not Protect Home Computers. The federal district court in Virginia ruled that a criminal defendant had no ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ for information stored on his home computer. The particular case came out of an FBI sting of Playpen – a TOR site on the dark web used to host child pornography. It’s a complicated and unprecedented case where the FBI seized the server and continued to operate the site, and to eventually arrest numerous users.

But the ruling is a bit troublesome because it implies that police have the power to remotely access the files on somebody’s computer without a warrant. That runs contrary to recent rulings about the security of information on a cell phone. Police have searched computers before of people who have been charged with crimes, but the ability to search the computers of people who have not been accused of any crime without a warrant is scary. I expect this to be appealed.

FBI says Location of Surveillance Cameras Must be Kept Secret. The FBI was successful in getting a judge to block Seattle City Light from divulging the location of FBI security cameras. City Light is part of the city government and would normally be required to respond to requests for information like this from the public.

One thing the court process revealed is that the majority of police surveillance cameras are installed without a warrant, which raises the issue of violating the Fourth Amendment. The judge in this case did say that he thought the FBI needed warrants to install cameras.

Europe Proposes Requiring an Online ID. Officials in the European Commission have suggested that European citizens be required to use a government issued ID when online. The purpose of this is supposedly to provide a trustworthy environment online for merchants and people to be able to know who they are dealing with.

The White House had proposed a similar voluntary system a few years ago in response to cyberbullying and other online issues. They suggested that if people adopted a verified and trustworthy identity online that they could be safer by only dealing with others who did the same. There are still a few states considering trials of the idea. But that proposal was very far away from being the mandatory requirements suggested in Europe.

The Best Explanation of Network Neutrality Yet. And finally, Stephen Colbert discusses net neutrality while on a roller coaster.