As reported in New Scientist, in Toronto and in many other cities around the world, “smart city” projects are underway. The concept of software interconnected infrastructure is not new. Making Artificial Intelligence (AI) use data to actively improve our everyday lives seems like a worthwhile endeavor.
This is not just a futuristic concept, as for the past 12 months, the city of Hangzhou in China has collaborated with Alibaba and Foxcom to build the “City Brain” project, where AI began to run the city. For the past year, AI has been absorbing every bit of data it could get its virtual hands on. Virtually all residents are tracked; Your activity on social media, your purchases, your movements, your trips, everything is uploaded to the AI databases, where decisions are made in real time.
The stated goal of the project is to improve life in Hangzhou by enabling artificial intelligence to track traffic, crime, commuting, shopping, interactions, general movements, and much more. Residents were tracked both generally and specifically, with City Brain even hooked up to local social media, even tracking their cell phones.
The project has been deemed a huge success and Alibaba is now packaging the system for export to other cities in China and ultimately the rest of the world. After a year with the new system, rush hour traffic is down 10% as the system uses hundreds of thousands of cameras spread throughout the city, tracking the movement of almost every car on the road. It can instantly detect accidents, blockages, and can predict traffic flow 10 minutes in advance, then adjust traffic light patterns to match the flow. Illegal parking is tracked in real time and the system will even communicate with individual travelers to offer detours and weather warnings.
Here’s one that the police love. If someone breaks the law, they can also be tracked around the city before being stopped by the police. The reality is that a completely ‘smart’ city means that almost every aspect of your life is tracked – the privacy concerns are huge.
Why does it seem to work so well in Hangzhou? As Alibaba’s project leader Xian-Sheng Hua said … “In China, people worry less about privacy, allowing us to move faster.”
“It is easy to identify when people are not following ‘normal’ behavior patterns. Having identified people who are not ‘normal’, of course, they can be traced, and who they meet, where they are going, etc. quickly identified. “says Paul Bernal of the University of East Anglia, UK. “As a way to control dissident movements or anything the authorities don’t like, it’s perfect.”
According to the Gartner Group, an estimated 2.3 billion connected things will be used in smart cities this year, a 43% increase over 2016. This increase in digital connectivity also exposes a number of vulnerabilities that cybercriminals will queue to exploit .
In Watch Dogs, you play a hacker taking over the central operating system of a hyper-connected, futuristic Chicago. Once you have control over the city’s security system, you can spy on residents using surveillance cameras, intercept phone calls, and cripple the city’s critical infrastructure, bringing the city to its knees.
While Watch Dogs is just a game, it illustrates a scenario that could happen in today’s increasingly smart cities. Recently, a major attack occurred that targeted the Internet infrastructure in the US with one of the largest DDoS attacks ever recorded. The root cause was traced back to bypassed security vulnerabilities in hundreds of thousands of compromised connected video cameras. Internet of Things (IoT) -enabled cameras and similar sensors are powering the Smart City initiative that relies on these devices to manage all of the city’s infrastructure and assets. Essentially, this dependency suggests that even the smallest security vulnerabilities within the Smart City infrastructure can escalate security exploitation to unimaginable and uncontrollable levels.
We are becoming a society that is increasingly willing that all of our movements and conversations are monitored for the perceived convenience of a ‘safer’ and more efficient city. We are giving up our individual rights and freedoms so that big government can better protect us.
It’s a timely thought, as we recently had Remembrance Day in Canada and Memorial Day in the United States. These days we honor those who gave their lives to protect our rights and freedoms. The question going forward is, have we become too eager to give up those rights and freedoms that so many have died to preserve, simply to make our lives more convenient? A smart city is actually a surveillance city, where citizen privacy is the cost of efficiency gains.