Smart cities offer promises and concerns about privacy

8 min read

The promise is great for so-called smart cities, which will deploy a network of interactive sensors to achieve efficiency and innovation. The smart city vision includes driverless cars, renewable energy to support power consumption in a city, energy efficient buildings and communication systems that work with the infrastructure of the location to prevent waste, among other functions.

A report from the International Data Corporation (IDC) indicates that spending on smart city technology is expected to reach $ 135 billion by 2021.

Despite the promise of a futuristic and more environmentally friendly city, the results – at least so far – are not huge. Politicians talk about future benefits, while committees of special interest groups are formed and plans are made. Nevertheless, little progress seems to be made in the actual implementation of most programs or the preparation of a deployment timetable.

That can change. Google is building a smart city in Toronto and with the enormous resources of the technology giant, the first widespread implementation of smart city promises can be obvious. But there are still concerns about certain aspects of the implementation of the smart cities program.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared at the kick-off of the smart city in October 2017, designed by Google for Toronto. "We know the world is changing," said Trudeau, standing next to Google's senior manager Eric Schmidt. "The choice we have is to resist it and be afraid of it, or to say that we can step it up and shape it."

Google's goal in Toronto is to address common urban issues such as traffic congestion, inefficient services and unaffordable homes on 12 acres of waterfront land. But there are already concerns about the project. Many reports have been published on privacy for the residents of the new city, which are constantly recorded in their activities.

Compact hidden cameras take photos with low resolution of residents and visitors, as well as cars on the street. The smart city promises to use the "feedback from residents" to plan and adjust services. But the project has upset many people, including local technologists, project developers, politicians from both sides of the aisle, urban planners, academics, privacy experts, business leaders and the Canadian Civil Liberties Union.

Are we being overly promised?

Prime Minister Trudeau said at the press conference that Google & # 39; s smart urban project is announcing that Toronto would serve as a model for Canada and the world.

An analyst agreed that the promise of smart cities may be over-sold. But, he added, that is not necessarily a bad thing. "Of course, but that's nothing new," said Peter Hirshberg, co-founder of co-working space Maker City and chairman of Swytch, a blockchain-based platform that releases the impact of sustainability efforts and actions on the global level of CO2 emissions.

"Cities have always had our greatest aspirations and visions of utopia. The World Exhibition / Urban Renewal / Post-War Cities of 1939 promised a utopian city of tomorrow without curse and smooth traffic. Instead, we got suburbs, too many cars, traffic, white flight and lack of sustainability. The modern urban movement of the 1990s promised a creative class and revitalized urban centers, built on the principle that denser cities were smarter and open innovation worked better than suburban office parks. "

Privacy is perhaps a thing of the past in a world of smart cities

As with the concerns of Toronto, protecting privacy and data collected in a smart city is an important question that still needs to be answered. The data collected by a municipality must be largely anonymous in urban environments.

Jeffrey Blessing, a professor and director at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, sees other reasons to be wary. "I'm worried about the cyber security implications of the smart city," Blessing told Cointelegraph.

The devices and services that we use in a metropolitan environment must be secure, he says. This is necessary to win the trust of the public. And to achieve this, it seems clear that competing companies will have to work together to really benefit.

"Computer networks are an excellent example of this; standards are set so that devices work together and communicate, but compete on the implementation of services," said Blessing.

He also believes that companies should offer both simple user experiences and privacy guarantees.

"When it comes to users adopting and accepting new technology, convenience and ease of use is the key," he said. "However, security is often clumsy and security gates must be placed around valuable data and information."

He adds: "We've all heard horror stories about hacking, cyber burglaries and data loss from all sorts of institutions, public and private, large and small. Technological innovation in a public environment is always a challenge, because there are conflicting forces at work to be. "

Artificial Intelligence (AI) serves as an example of Blessing & # 39; s points:

"From the point of view of cyber security, AI technology is in the hands of both the good guys (white hats) and the bad guys (black hats). Companies are constantly collecting data about us from our mobile phones, smart speakers, ubiquitous cameras & # 39; s , etc. And use AI to find out more about our habits, goals and intentions through machine learning.Although we cannot be paranoid about big brothers, we need public officials to demand transparency and responsibility from technology companies trying to profit of personal data collected through smart city initiatives. "

Blockchain and crypto technologies in a smart city

In a smart city environment, there must be a system that allows the devices trying to monetize certain activities to verify a large number of transactions and quickly confirm their authenticity.

That is where blockchain and DLT can play a role. But there are limitations with the current state of technology. The ability to scale to handle millions of daily transactions is one, with another being the speed of verifying transactions and potentially high transaction costs.

The problem is somewhat endemic to the current state of DLT and blockchain. This is because transactions with DLT and blockchain must be verified by the operators of nodes along the chains, who are then rewarded with a digital currency for their problems.

This can result in a network that needs a lot of time to verify things when the volume gets high, with transaction costs increasing to encourage transaction confirmations. This makes it currently impractical for use in most large-scale situations.

However, there are many companies that try to solve these problems for business customers. R3 & # 39; s Corda, who has created a blockchain-based platform, inspired by the Bitcoin blockchain, works with business clients on such projects. IBM and Samsung are developing an architecture for blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT), and Tangle from IOTA is strongly involved in the sector.

LO3 Energy, an intelligent meter on block machines that helps to monitor the use and distribution of utilities, is trying to provide a way for renewable energy, conservative water use and pollution control. And Omnitude and the island of Malta have entered into a partnership to create a blockchain infrastructure for public transport management. Blockchain could serve as a payment center for public transport, including bus, train and metro tickets.

Smart cities: boom or failure?

Ultimately, the hype about smart cities might just be a marketing trick for large companies to sell their devices and gadgets.

"Smart Cities were originally proposed by suppliers such as Cisco, IBM and others as a way to sell sensors, big data, machine learning to government agencies to reduce costs and increase efficiency," said Evan Caron, CEO of Swytch . "There have been many, many processes, some of which were successful, others not. What has been shown is that the sensors themselves are quite cheap. What is expensive for a city to invest in is the security and data analysis required to understand data that is discarded by sensors. "

Caron told Cointelegraph that certain cities, including San Francisco, have responded to this by offering an open data platform so that citizen encoders can create applications based on the flow of information from sensors.

"This has been a hugely successful and generative thing for cities," Caron said. "But it was not always profitable for the sellers themselves."

Smart cities apparently stand at a crossroads between promise and the fulfillment of those promises. Many companies and politicians work on solving the problems. Whether that actually happens in a way that is acceptable to the public remains to be seen.

The opinions and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Cointelegraph.

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Don Bradman

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