Smart cities – Big data meets Big Brother

by VPNHaus | 05/10/2018

Smart Cities are evolving at a phenomenal pace.

Not so long ago, smart city initiatives were little more than a series of discrete pilot projects. Now, public officials worldwide have latched on to digital technology as a cure for all kinds of urban improvements – from waste management and pollution control to traffic enforcement and public safety. 

With city populations worldwide on the rise the race is on to approve as many schemes as possible for the improvement of people’s everyday lives. The danger is that citizens become unwitting participants in public/private programs sanctioned by administrators but run by private contractors.

Inevitably, some of these services will involve personally identifiable data being stored in private hands. In some instances public officials have no idea where every sensor is, what they do or who controls them. 

Lines between Big Data and Big Brother and associated privacy issues are blurring. City service providers can better control these risks by insisting such schemes use data encryption and virtual private networks (VPNs) at all Internet connection points from the outset.

Huge Investment

City populations around the world are mushrooming. Numbers living urban areas are forecast to rise by 72 % from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion between 2011 and 2050.

In 2011, the average proportion of the population residing in cities was 52%. It will be 67% by 2050. In response to the added pressures on public services city planners everywhere are investing in smart technology to improve the efficiency of environmental, economic and social aspects of urban life.

IDC anticipates smart city technology spending will reach $80 billion this year, rising to $135 billion by 2021. The largest investor in smart city technology will be the US. Spending here is set to reach $22 billion this year, closely followed by China at $21 million.

Public Services in Private Hands

A complex web of smart city projects is developing with state bodies, municipal authorities and the private sector working together in cooperation.

In theory, all parties work seamlessly together for the benefit of their communities. In practice, data security measures between the different organizations can vary greatly. Motives too can differ and circumstances can change.

In the Netherlands, for example, a smart scheme that manages 30,000 traffic lights, 500,000 lamp-posts, and 2,000 car parks around the country is run by a private contractor that refuses to share data with the local authorities claiming it owns the economic rights to that data.

Elsewhere a Dutch city invested in a privately-owned project that connected traffic systems to a high-speed internet grid to help citizens avoid traffic jams.  But the company went bust and the scheme, regardless of its being indebted to public money, was acquired by a new owner.

The Netherlands is one country that places a high value on data privacy. It shows how the many different interests and legal responsibilities in smart city projects can become confused, making protection of citizens’ data privacy almost impossible even in places where the authorities take it very seriously.

Trials and Tribulations

The odd setback notwithstanding, smart city trials continue to pop up everywhere.

In London self-driving delivery robots can be seen delivering small goods to Internet shoppers.   There are plans, backed by Bill Gates, for a smart city in Arizona. In Toronto, meanwhile, Google intends to build a whole neighborhood for testing the latest smart city ideas.

But concerns about the risks to data privacy and hacker attacks are never far away. In 2013, a pilot program where sensors installed in recycling bins used the Wi-Fi signals from passing phones to target passers-by with personalized advertisements was shut down after it emerged  the company was not telling citizens they were being tracked.

Other examples include a cyberattack on a toll road in Israel, a ransomware attack on ticketing machines on the San Francisco municipal rail network and a serious hack on a tram network by a Polish teenager that caused four trams to derail, injuring a number of passengers.

City officials who, in the future, fail to implement adequate controls regarding privacy and data breaches could be accused of being asleep-at-the-wheel just as Facebook has been discovering.

Security Must Come First

Big Data projects are gathering, aggregating and analysing vast amounts of information for the collective benefit of city residents.  When stored in bulk form the data is much harder to trace back to individuals and their privacy is preserved.

However, when cities use systems that track individual movements and living habits, the boundaries between Big Data and Big Brother become confused. Life is subject to constant change, public/private initiatives come and go so rapidly that it is easy for governments to lose track of things.

On top of this is the risk of cyber-attack. For this reason, every smart city initiative must make data security its top priority.

VPNs provide several desirable features for protecting the data of individuals, public services and private initiatives. The encryption of data communications over the public Internet affords ensures individual privacy is maintained while at the same time making it harder for outsiders such as hackers to identify system vulnerabilities.

When weighing up what VPN service to go for it is advisable to find out how many servers they have and where they are hosted.

You may also want a VPN services that protect mobile device communications. Remember also that many free/low-cost VPN services harvest user data themselves for marketing purposes.

In summary, as population pressures on the world’s cities increase the search for answers to improve the environmental, economic and social lives of citizens makes the continued deployment of smart technology inevitable.

City planners and private companies must ensure robust security measures are embedded in every project. This includes the use of data encryption and virtual private networks (VPNs) for data communications at every IP-connection point in the system.