According to United Nations research, by 2050 there will be around 9.7 billion people on our planet. Most of these people (66%) will live in urban areas and populate mega-cities of 10 million or more.

That’s an awful lot of human beings to feed, water, cloth, rid-waste of, house, heal, transport, and communicate with.

Waste alone is becoming an onerous problem to deal with. According to the World Bank, global waste is set to increase by 70% to 2050. Similarly. Healthcare is being pushed to breaking point. Every aspect of our daily living needs has become a challenge.

As climate change strikes and changes the metrics of energy production and consumption, we are being forced down a pathway; fix this or pay the price. Enter the smart city and the hopes that clever technology brings.

But are we and our data safe in the smart city?

We Built This City on Rock and Data (And the IoT)

A smart city needs food to live. This food comes in the form of data, often personal data such as behavioral, geo-location, sensitive health data, and so on. These data are generated by sensors and smart devices, both in our homes and across the city infrastructure. The data is then used across a myriad of services that the smart city is built upon. The analysis of these data allows for services to be optimized and made efficient. What could possibly go wrong?

The smart home:  Smart devices such as Amazon Alexa are priming us for full-on smart city life. Juniper Research has found that there will be a 1000% increase in the use of voice-activated digital assistants by 2023. This will result in the ubiquitous use of voice data to automate everyday tasks in the home, such as switching the lights on. The concerns over these data are already making headline news. Amazon recently admitted that Alexa listens to conversations in the home so a ‘wake’ word can be identified. This is bad enough, but Amazon also employs thousands of people to listen to random voice clips.

No matter which of these assistants you choose, all of them have a very obvious Achilles heel – privacy.

The thing is, although the clips are not associated directly with the user, the device serial number and the user’s account number are linked to the clip. That is enough to connect a voice clip to an individual. You can ‘opt-out’, of course, but the fact the design was created using a default ‘opt-in’ shows underlying attitudes towards personal data by the companies working in the smart device area.

The next thing on Amazon’s list of Alexa ‘to-do’s’ is to train Alexa to recognize emotions. A Paper by Furey and Blue looked at the privacy issues of connecting emotion with voice-activated assistants. They concluded that there are ethical and privacy implications that have yet to be addressed even in modern legislation such as GDPR.

Smart health: Healthcare is an important aspect of the smart city. The use of technology can help to optimize the use of health resources as populations increase.  There is a global shortage of healthcare professionals which is putting emphasis on technology support in the profession. The World Health Organization (WHO) has predicted a shortfall of 18 million healthcare workers by 2030. Writer and nurse, Elaine Francis, talks about remote patient care freeing up nursing resources and improving patient outcomes. However, she caveats the use of connected devices with concerns over patient health data and privacy. Health data has been shown time and again to be a draw for cybercriminals. A 2018 report by Thales, found that 77% of U.S. healthcare providers have suffered a data breach.

health data

Your health data is on demand

Our health data lifecycle and flow will more complex as it becomes smarter. Health data will flow across smart and disparate devices from wearables to IoT devices to apps to the Cloud to practitioners; as it does so, health data is likely to become even more at risk.

Smart transport: Anyone who has been stuck in traffic in one of our inner cities will look forward to smarter transport. Traffic accidents are one of the scourges of our modern era. In India in 2017, almost 1.5 million people lost their lives in road traffic accidents. Smart transport can help to alleviate the problems of large populations in congested cities. Smart transport can not only help to calm traffic, but it also cuts down on emissions, helping with health and climate impacts.

Journey data is being used through drives such as the Open Data Initiative (ODI).  The ODI is attempting to build and use data that prevents harm to the individual. The ODI is looking at the application of journey data in smart transport systems. They have created an “Open Data Ethic Canvas” that helps to focus on the good practice use of data collected in projects such as smart transport.

Smart waste: When you have a lot of people you have a lot of waste. And waste in itself can create waste in the form of non-optimal refuse collection and truck emissions. In London, for example, there is an effort to make the city ‘zero-waste’ by 2030, with a series of ambitious recycling and waste management initiatives. There are many facets of the application of the IoT to waste management. One such example is the use of sensors in garbage bins. The sensors relay details about the level of waste in the bin, temperature, location, and so on. The waste collectors can use this data to work out routes that maximize the efficiency of collections. This, in turn, helps to reduce emissions from waste collection trucks.

A paper “Privacy concerns in smart cities” by Liesbet van Zoonen, looks at the seemingly innocuous collection of impersonal data including that from smart bins. She points out that once you connect a ‘thing’ like a bin with an identifier like an authentication token, which some smart bins do, you start to take impersonal data into the realm of personal data. The ‘thing’ is then owned by an identifiable someone.

The Smart Critical Infrastructure of Data

One of the issues that we face as we smarten up our cities is that the Internet of Things (IoT) is still in “wild west” mode. A recent study by ZScaler found that 91.5% of IoT transactions were being sent over unencrypted channels. If we are to use IoT devices to transmit the data that will make our city services smart, then it has to be secure by default. Data within the context of a smart city becomes a critical infrastructure in and of its own right. As such, it should be afforded the same levels of security that we afford critical infrastructures like energy.

But it isn’t just a case of insecure management of data. Smart cities have real potential to become surveillance cities. All these data generated and shared across disparate systems and services have even greater use when aggregated. In the paper mentioned previously on “Privacy concerns in smart cities” the use of ‘impersonal data’ such as crowd and event data, traffic flows, infrared video and CCTV images were discussed. These data are often used in combination with geographical location and they are used along with other applications for predictive policing. These data can be analyzed and combined in such a way that the impersonal becomes personal.

The paper goes on to talk about ‘predictive policing’. This brings to mind the work of Philip K. Dick who wrote the sci-fi story “Minority Report”. In the story, human beings with predictive powers are used to predict ‘future crimes’ – crimes that have yet to occur. The moral of the tale being that serious and life-changing mistakes happen in such a situation. The issue with using smart city data for predictive crime is that there is a fine line between doing good and doing harm in the form of surveillance; where does it end and who surveils the surveillance?

Is There Hope of a Data Respectful Smart City?

There is a lot of work afoot to make data-respectful technology. Groups, universities, individuals, and even governments are coming together to look at how we can stop technology and the smart city from mugging our data.

“Me2B” was something first postulated by Ctrl-Shift. Me2B business models put the consumer center-stage in the use of technology; “consumers and citizens being providers of information, not just ‘audiences”. Organizations such as the Me2B Alliance are taking this idea and turning it into a practical framework for technology companies to follow.

Universities too are attempting to teach the next generation of designers with course such as the “How to Change the World” program at University College London (UCL). This and others are looking to train engineers in the requirements of 21st century technologies.

The creation of smart technology to give us the smart cities we so desperately need, could end as a case of you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Privacy of data and any aspect of our lives is a fundamental right for us to choose. The designers of such cities and the technology behind them must get behind this ethos. Only by ensuring that privacy is part of the design remit of a technology can there be hope to feel truly safe in this technological panoply.

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