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Too smart for their own good? Security, privacy and smart cities

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As networks get speedier and devices become capable of more complex processing, municipalities have seen a new application for technology: smart cities, in which significant portions of the infrastructure are networked, automated or both. Sensors, artificial intelligence, cameras and more can interconnect in a vast web that -- in theory -- eases the workload for humans, takes the guesswork out of planning and makes communities safer. With new opportunities come new threats, though. Security holes and the potential for privacy violations have some people convinced that caution is the smartest thing going. 

Smart cities are a major element of the urban future. A recent study by Easy Park found at least 150 cities worldwide scored a 50 or above on its 100-point scale of intelligence. London, Paris, New York, Singapore and San Francisco were among the leaders, but even communities that didn’t make the list are now implementing smart features.   

Las Vegas, for instance, is using digital twins paired with roadwork, and augmented by artificial intelligence models, to predict traffic jams before they happen. Police in Washington, D.C., are turning to video and data analysis to detect cases that community resources might handle better, while a traffic light system in San Jose spots emergency vehicles and turns the lights ahead of them green. Innovations like these can make a big difference to cities’ safety and efficiency.

They also have immense potential to create problems. Data and video analysis could constitute significant privacy violations, and pairing them with law enforcement may be a recipe for trouble, given recent revelations about bias and overreach in police departments. Hacking constitutes an even more immediate threat: The digital twin system managing Las Vegas traffic could produce rather than avoid traffic jams, while San Jose’s automated traffic lights could be lethal if compromised. Power, water and internet all are additional tempting targets for malicious users from terrorists to those making ransomware demands.

Many cities, in their enthusiastic adoption of smart technology, have left themselves unprepared for the concerns that it raises. An IBM Security report in 2018 revealed that passwords for devices such as traffic signals or sensors are often very easy for potential hackers to figure out, and that remote connections for a significant number are completely unsecured. Some problems may have been resolved more recently, but not all: The World Economic Forum reported in July that most digitally advanced cities have yet to designate central cybersecurity authorities.

As concern about security grows in the US and around the world, organizations are increasingly considering ways to specifically address threats to smart cities. Representatives from the National Cybersecurity Center say that certification might be one step toward making cities of the future safer. Its potential system would evaluate both software and devices to spot potential entry points for hackers, and the program would also give city officials configuration advice. 

The balance between convenience and security has always been tricky. It’s a constant theme in the history of technology. The advances that make our lives easier often make malicious actions easier as well. With smart cities on the rise around the world, governments and industry must move swiftly to ensure that safety gets enough weight on the scales this time.   

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