Cities are the bustling hub of society, centres of business, leisure and economic activity. Often, behind the thriving life of cities has hidden a spectre of danger, from violent crime to economic destitution. Now, as cities evolve to meet the demands of the 21st century, new dangers are emerging. New technology is enabling the growth of so-called “smart” cities, as infrastructure collects data and adapts accordingly. Yet these utopian cities of the future are not without their own inherent risk to privacy and fundamental human dignity. In this article we’ll explore how these risks emerge, and what we can to do mitigate their worst effects.
What Is A Smart City?
The concept of smart cities emerged in the early 2000s as the concept of integrating technology within cities began to be explored. Today, a smart city is fundamentally built on data collection – for example, traffic lights can be enabled to gather information about traffic flow, and automated to optimize traffic accordingly. “Data is gathered and analyzed through a variety of means to create a new, fluctuating landscape,” says Samantha Garrett, a journalist at Writinity and Last Minute Writing. “It’s these powerful new applications of data that allow smart cities their great potentiality – but also the risks to privacy.” Let’s see what these risks entail.
Smart cities are produced by the creation of an Internet of Things – a series of objects interconnected by the internet, from traffic lights to dustbins. Every day devices are no longer inert or independent, and whilst interconnectivity opens up new possibilities for smart cities, it also creates vulnerabilities. Whilst smart devices are relatively new to our streets they’ve been in our homes for a while, and have been subject to damaging attacks. In 2015, for example, Samsung’s smart fridges were revealed to be open to man-in-the-middle attacks, giving bad actors access to our personal data. As smart cities grow, it’s not just individuals but whole societies whose data may be up for grabs.
The expansion of 5G into our cities promises faster network speeds and potential free WiFi across cities. These utopian notions are important for the growth of smart cities, but 5G also poses significant security risks. “5G towers, for example, can allow the connection of many more devices than those of 3G or 4G,” says Mark Williamson, a tech blogger at Draft Beyond and Research Papers UK, “and more devices mean more vulnerabilities to attack. 5G networks are creating inherent risk for our privacy, yet they’re at the heart of smart cities.”
Smart devices are better suited to work in their environment, and smart cities will include smart roads, and smart cars. Motion sensors and cameras fitted to these devices are a key part of the technology, and yet they open up inherent dangers for our privacy. Were hackers to gain access through networks to smart technology in cities, they could literally spy on their unsuspecting owners. In this way, privacy is at risk within smart cities.
One potential feature of smart cities is the expanded use of drones for a variety of services – this made quite a splash when it was announced by Amazon. Drone technology, bypassing road networks, has the ability to revolutionize the growing delivery industry, but it comes with obvious privacy concerns. Drone-armies swarming the skies will give corporations a vantage point into our most intimate moments as gardens and skylights become susceptible. Smart cities will need to confront the issue of surveillance as this technology grows.
Lastly, waste management is one aspect of city life that’s commonly hidden from view. This belies its importance, however and in smart cities waste management systems can leverage technology to reduce pollution and optimize energy consumption. Waste data might seem innocuous at first, but researchers have shown that even from small samples it’s possible to reverse-engineer data to trace waste data back to individuals. Anonymizing waste data needs to be a priority for smart cities looking to take advantage of this technology.
Smart cities bring many benefits, from economic efficiency to reduced environmental impact. Nevertheless, if citizen privacy is fundamentally compromised, smart cities will herald the dawn of a dystopian age rather than a utopian one. Taking on the challenges of data collection are essential for smart cities to thrive.