Prioritizing the Privacy Concerns of Smart Cities

A new kind of city is emerging — one where a network of sensors and devices collect huge amounts of data that planners use to drive policy and create a city that better fits the needs of its citizens. These “smart cities” are popular among city planners in wealthy and high-tech areas — and they may just be the future of the city.

But the technology that these smart cities rely on — huge numbers of internet of things (IoT) devices — has some cybersecurity experts concerned. These IoT devices are new, haven’t always been tested at scale and may present serious security risks. Without the proper precautions, the sensitive data these devices collect may be put at risk.

At the same time, privacy experts are worried about the implications of a city that is constantly monitoring its citizens.

Here are the concerns that security and privacy experts have with smart cities — and how smart city planners are tackling the challenge.

Why Smart Cities Concern Privacy Experts

Some smart city planners argue that there is an inherent risk to data collection — that a large pool of data is always at risk of being compromised, no matter how good the security is. This risk, they say, doesn’t outweigh the potential benefits of a smart city.

Privacy and security experts are not convinced by this argument — in part because they fear smart city planners aren’t taking data security seriously enough.

Part of the issue experts have with smart cities is the methods they use to collect data. Smart cities use IoT devices, which are some of the most commonly attacked by cyber criminals — primarily because the devices are notorious for being improperly secured by developers and manufacturers.

In a smart city, these IoT devices connect to a network of other devices and computers to report the data that they collect. As a result, many of these IoT devices can serve as an access point to the entire smart city network. This means that a hacker may only need to break into of one IoT device to gain full network access. With access, the hacker could observe and collect all the data that the smart city has been aggregating.

For citizens of the smart city, this could easily be a serious issue — even if the data isn’t something like a bank number or set of passwords.

For example, the majority of burglaries happen between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. — when homeowners are least likely to be at home. If a smart city is collecting data about when homeowners are present in order to adjust energy production or traffic flow, criminals could reconstruct homeowners’ schedules and know exactly when to strike.

And the more information these criminals have access to — like whether or not a family has pets, children or home security systems — the more severe the consequences could be for a data breach.

How Smart Cities Can Become More Secure

Simple security measures — like data encryption and network access controls — have been shown to be hugely effective when it comes to preventing enterprise-level data breaches. The same techniques could easily be applied to smart cities — but they will require that smart city planners take seriously the possibly of data breaches.

Demanding higher security standards from IoT manufacturers and software developers could also help prevent unauthorized network access.

There are a few different ways that smart city planners could appease privacy advocates. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has proposed guidelines that a smart city could follow which they feel would help ensure the privacy of citizens living in a smart citizens. The guidelines would require smart city planners to work with manufacturers to ensure product security. The guidelines would also require that city governments limit the amount of kinds of data a smart city can collect.

And communication between planners and the public could go a long way. Smart cities have eroded their citizens’ trust somewhat by not fully communicating what kind of data they plan to collect. Knowing what data is being collected can help smart city citizens make more informed decisions. Better knowledge may also improve the conversation about data privacy that’s happening right now.

Smart Cities and the Privacy Debate

Smart cities are on the rise, and may just be the future of cities. At the same time, security and privacy experts are concerned that the costs for the data they collect could be significant.

There are several possible solutions that may make smart cities both more secure and help privacy advocates feel better about the data collected. In order for these solutions to work, smart city planners will have to take data security and privacy more seriously.


*) Source header: Shutterstock.
**) This article was written by Kayla Matthews (kaylaematthews@gmail.com), tech journalist and writer.

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