Back to Smart cities: Mission control

The Watchful Eye

By Thomas Jenny, Senior Underwriter

Big Brother looms in the minds of private citizens as the greatest risk of smart-city connectivity. Of course, Orwell didn’t predict how keen millions of us would be to share our private lives with the world at large. Still, even Facebook and Instagram junkies want protection against secret or unwanted surveillance and interference.

This will be an ongoing battle. There is no end to what can be monitored and managed through a combination of sensors, video, radar and software. The so-called “Internet of Things” is putting us all under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Our smart phones already transmit our locations to cell providers, and authorities can request this information for many reasons. In fact, Google and Apple record our everyday movements in detail through our smartphones, and maintain records going back at least a year. It seems we all agreed to that, by default.

Soon our smartphones will transmit certain information directly or indirectly to and from the operations center, if not also to higher government authorities. When we need information from the city, like where the empty parking spaces are, we will enjoy this connection. It will be great when we are in an accident, and emergency services can locate us faster for rescue. When we don’t want to be tracked, we won’t be so appreciative. 

The smart-home trend is also underway. Home-security devices, kitchen appliances, lights, entertainment systems, and utilities are being wired to obey smartphone instructions. Inevitably many of these devices will connect to the city’s digital architecture. The city will be able to manage power, water, and waste much more efficiently with detailed digital readings from our homes. Our security devices already connect to police and emergency services.

More Connections, More Potential Leaks

The kind of data being transmitted by our devices is already hazy to all but application experts. As connectivity increases, how will the average citizen know which information is being collected and analyzed by authorities, utility companies, security services, and other businesses? How hard will it be for anyone working there, or garden-variety hackers, to access the most intimate details of our lives? Statistically, a complex network with so many connection points clearly has a greater chance of incurring security leaks, and several headline events have proven that such breaches can go undetected for months. 

Information exposure severely outpaces legislation. Several smartphone application providers have been legally reprimanded for covert information collection and deceptive practices, but this is after the fact. Many wonder why our legal default is not set to “private”. Shouldn’t there be, at least, a transparency mandate, so that we know exactly what kind of data is being accessed, and by whom?

Personal Privacy

On 13 May, the European Court of Justice (the “ECJ”) confirmed that existing data protection legislation provided a citizen protection with the “Right to be Forgotten”. Google now has to consider removing the personal information of EU citizens on request—and over 70,000 requests have already poured in. Google has set up an advisory council comprised of renowned legal, academic, technology, and media experts, in order to devise best practices. Google’s review is itself being scrutinized by regulators. The law does not require Google to comply with every request, but rather, to review each request separately, to determine which right is more important: the right to be forgotten, or the public right to know. How many search-engine entries will eventually be deleted is impossible to determine at this point, but the world is watching. 

Overly specific data legislation would hinder public and private pursuits. And the strictest regulation could never rule out the threat of covert data access. The fact is that software coding is varied and complex, and relatively few understand it. Debating Europe, a think tank sponsored by the EU, also notes that this variety makes a one-world internet regulator with universal standards highly improbable. However, the EU principle that rights, laws, and values apply equally to cyberspace and the physical world should guide governments, businesses, and other organizations in identifying vulnerabilities and establishing safeguards.

Are there times when we are willing to sacrifice personal privacy for security?

Click on the following link to read next topic:

Smart Cities: Mission Control

Page 1: How Smart is the Data ?

Page 2: The Watchful Eye

Page 3:  A new Era of Security for Seniors and Other Vulnerable Groups

Page 4: Cyber Defense for Infrastructure Partners

Page 5: Smart City Risks and Rewards

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