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January 25, 2017updated 13 Feb 2017 11:33am

Smart City: the next step or privacy threat?

As technology becomes ever more integrated into daily life there is growing concern over the safety and security of these systems.

By Joe Clark

With more and more ‘Smart City’ technology being implemented into modern life there is growing concern over the security of the systems and the privacy of their denizens.

Smart City tech is on the rise around the world, providing new ways to monitor inhabitants’ actions and how to maximise the efficiency of the city in a truly utilitarian fashion. However, as the tech is fairly new and heavily relies on the collection of massive amounts of data, many people are concerned about its integration into their lives according to a report by Broadband Genie.

The thinking behind Smart Cities is to combine urban development strategies with the ever new and emerging ICT and IoT systems, with one of the more common examples of these applications including the way in which traffic systems gather data in order to manage traffic flow more efficiently.

Smart City

Image courtesy of JCT600

Broadband Genie tried to determine how British Councils were using Smart City tech and what the public reaction was. After a large number of councils did not respond to FOI requests or declined due to cost, several of them came back with pertinent information. Council operated wifi was found to be deployed in Belfast, York, Leicester and Worcester, with Inverness saying it had a £500,000 budget for wifi deployment.

Councillor Frank McAveety, Leader of Glasgow City Council, said: “Glasgow is at the forefront of the innovative use of data in the UK, and this was recognised when the city won the £24 million award from the UK Government for the Future Cities Demonstrator project. We use data to make the lives of our residents, businesses and visitors easier and simpler and recognise its importance now and in the years to come.”

The public seems to have a different opinion, however, with an overwhelming majority  saying they thought that Smart City tech was not a good investment for councils.

Of the 2000 plus surveyed by Broadband Genie, 67% said Smart City tech was not a good investment for public funds, with a similar number voicing concerns about their privacy and security over the idea that Smart Cities would be obtaining and using their personal data to make its decisions.

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Cesar Cerrudo, Chief Technology Officer at IOActive commented: “I’m very concerned due to the current adoption of many insecure smart cities technologies. Most technologies are being implemented without any security testing, putting smart city services at risk of cyber attacks. Threats of cyber attack are very real; there are plenty of possibilities for cyber attacks on cities around the world. It’s just a matter of time that attackers decide to do it.”

Smart City

A Smart City can potentially hold data on every aspect of it’s inhabitants lives, from energy usage to how and where we travel. This information in the hands of the government is also a troubling concept; by giving governments unparalleled access to civilian information it could be used to silence political dissent by identifying those most likely to become ‘troublemakers’, or use movement tracking to preempt political gatherings and protests.

Most worryingly, China has stated that by 2020 they envision a fully smart infrastructure in which citizens will be graded on a point system that rewards ‘good’ behaviour, though what constitutes as ‘good’ may be a topic of some debate.

If these systems are vulnerable, that leaves potentially world changing amounts of information at the fingertips of hackers to do with as they see fit, for good or ill.

The findings from Broadband Genie highlighted how the public at large needs more education and information regarding Smart Cities, how exactly they work, and how they will work in the future. Just 10% of those polled were aware of the UK’s current Smart City initiatives, such as energy saving streetlights and public WiFi hotspots, even though London is currently ranked as the third smartest Smart City in the world according to Juniper research.

As Smart City tech becomes an increasingly larger part of our infrastructure, it’s important that people are aware of the benefits and potential dangers it entails.

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