Smart Cities and Smart Citizens

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As the ‘Internet of Things’ increases in scale, ideas about ‘Smart Cities’ become more possible. What are the advantages of putting your City ‘online’? Who would be in control? And what happens if it fails?

A recent BBC special report, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s Cities’, looked at how Smart Cities are currently being used and how they will evolve in the future. From changing your entire cityscape to your local high-street, all the way down to your humble lampposts being connected to a central hub.

What are the benefits?

  • Interconnectivity. You can be constantly connected to your city. Is the bus running late? Find out exactly where it is. Notice a broken lamppost or bin? Report it via your smartphone in seconds.
  • Advertising. Remember that scene in Minority Report, when the advert is scanning people’s eyes and referring to them by name? Maybe that isn't so far away. Specialised and highly targeted advertising is one of the possible benefits.
  • On demand. Amazon’s proposed drone delivery service is slowly being rolled out: imagine fleets of drones flying through your city skies. They could be delivering food, important documents, post; almost anything could be flown to you in a matter of minutes.
  • Travel. Traffic could be a thing of the past; waiting in immigration lines ended; wondering if the bus will ever come, gone. A city that connects a camera system to its traffic system could end congestion forever: keeping track of every motorist, plotting their routes and editing traffic light time and road signs accordingly could put an end to traffic jams during your daily commute.
  • But what would you be giving up for all this lovely ‘Smart City’ functionality?

    Who has control? Who has my data?

    ‘My initial concern is who is holding the data?’ says ESET’s Mark James, and I couldn’t agree more. There has been a lot of pushback recently about government agencies having access to our personal and private data: would a whole city be willing to fork over terabytes worth of the stuff?

    For a Smart City to work it needs Smart Citizens, but what if most of those citizens want to opt out? Do you want to be tracked constantly? Have your browsing and shopping data comprised into the perfect ad for you? I’m sure there are many who won’t.

    How at risk would we be?

    Let’s assume that every citizen in London signs up and the city goes ‘Smart’. That’s roughly 8.5 million people submitting data to a central city hub. Mark asks, ‘who will be responsible when and if [the data] gets comprised’? Could we see a huge lawsuit against London, from every one of its citizens? Or will you be giving up all right to the data once it’s submitted?

    Unfortunately, as Mark points out, the idea of a Smart City constantly collecting and collating data presents a ‘massive dangling carrot for criminals and cybercriminals’. A huge amount of the focus would need to be on encryption, proper screening processes and management of the data itself.

    Big Brother, Watch Dogs

    My fear is that, with all the power at their disposal, governments could turn into Big Brother. Although I am a law abiding citizen, with nothing but a Jaffa Cake addiction to hide, I still prize keeping my private business private. I would like to know if the surveillance inherent in a ‘Smart City’ stops at my front door.

    The ‘Internet of Things‘ is growing exponentially. Does that mean that my appliances could potentially be connected to the City? Could they change the temperature of my thermostat or fridge, flush my toilet, or lock my door at a set curfew?

    How about the Watch Dogs scenario? I understand it’s just a video game, but is someone hacking into the power grid, traffic lights, or public transport really that farfetched? A City the size of London would quickly fall to pieces if the traffic system was heavily disrupted.

    To keep a Smart City in the public’s best interest there would need to be an independent body that set and maintained the rules and guidelines. Hypothetically they would also be responsible for inspecting the data storage systems, making sure they are secure and will remain so.