Modern cities are brimming with objects that receive, collect and transmit data. This includes mobile phones, but also objects embedded into, and around our cities, such as traffic lights and air pollution stations.
Even something as simple as a garbage bin can now be connected to the internet, meaning that it forms part of what is called the internet of things (IoT). A smart city collects data from all these digital objects and uses it to create new products and services that make cities more liveable.
Although it has a huge potential to make life better the possibility of increasingly smart cities also raises serious privacy concerns. Through sensors embedded into our cities, and smartphones in our pockets, smart cities will have the power to constantly identify where people are, who they are meeting, and even perhaps know what they are doing.
Following the 87 million Facebook users data that was leaked and used to influence electro voting behaviour, it is even more important to properly scrutinise where our data goes and how it is used. The more and more critical infrastructures fall victims to cyber-attacks we need to consider that our cities are not only becoming smarter, they are also becoming more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
Across the world, cities are becoming smarter. Singapore, London and San Francisco use technologies such as urban sensing – which captures how people interact with each other and their surroundings – geo-tracking; which records the movement of people, and real-time analytics (which processes the vast amount of collected data). Smart cities use these technologies to better manage energy and water supply, reduce contamination and traffic jams, optimise garbage collection routes or help people park their cars. A good example is Chicago's 'Array of Things' project.
Chicago's Array of Things project holds huge potential. Smart city initiatives do not just have the capabilities to make life more livable, they can also help us better the world. In 2013, the Greek academic, Vassilis Kostakos, introduced interactive LCD screens which encouraged people waiting at a bus stop to help identify malaria-infected blood cells.
Privacy concerns will also be of concern to a majority of the people out there, in the last few months, following the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook revelations, concerns over how companies use accumulated data has grown exponentially.
Due to the huge and detailed information collected by the internet of things (IoT) devices, smart city projects could lead to similar worries. Take, for example, the Cityware project, which demonstrated the possibility of mapping, not just digital but also physical encounters between Facebook friends. Cityware were able to track the movement and interaction of 30,000 people using their Facebook profile and smartphone Bluetooth signals.
People tend to underestimate that the smartphone they carry around is a very powerful sensing tool. In order to function, the phone continuously shares data about your location, digital and physical interaction, and more. When this data is matched with further information collected from IoT devices, and smart grids – electricity supply networks that rapidly detect and react to local changes in usage – it raises serious implications for people’s privacy and right to self-determination.
As cities get smarter, our digital information becomes even more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. For example, ransomware, which encrypts information and then asks for a ransom to free it, can hit even the biggest data holders, such as the UK National Health Service (NHS).
Stakes are extremely high when viruses hit local authorities. Hackers can take control of entire buildings or systems. Ultimately, even with all these concerns, embedding IoT into cities is a growing trend. To take control of what that means, people need to become better informed and more involved. The business models of stakeholders need to be scrutinised and their use of data needs to be accountable.
Most of all, citizens need to be listened to on how they want their cities to develop. Learn more about Chicago's Array of Things project in the video below, and decide for yourself whether it is a good or a bad thing to implement smart cities.