How to deal with the dark side of smart cities

Automated Internet of Things (IoT) applications promise to enhance urban safety by accelerating emergency response times, alerting motorists to traffic hazards, and more. Yet these innovations also create privacy and security challenges.

Let's explore the hidden dangers of smart cities and show how IoT developers can address them.

Welcome to the smart city

The combination of sensor technology, advanced data analytics and low-cost, reliable communication networks promises to improve the quality of life in cities worldwide. We are already seeing sensors that detect air and noise pollution, smart streetlights that reduce energy costs, and traffic lights that adjust to shifting commute patterns.

Beyond convenience, IoT technology can help protect citizens by detecting potential disaster conditions such as flooding before property or lives are endangered. It can also minimize human error in emergency response scenarios, and enhance law enforcement via automated image processing and explosive detection systems.

Cities need flexible infrastructure that can scale with the IoT solutions themselves. This is driving many cities to adopt cloud solutions that grow elastically with the demands that an entire city can place on technology infrastructure. 

The cloud allows developers to experiment with IoT solutions and iterate rapidly to discover value along the way, without wasting money on costly infrastructure. By contrast, securing data across multiple data centers compounds the complexity and increases the risk of a breach. The cloud conveniently provides a single point of focus both for analytics to be executed on the data as a whole and a security system implementation.

Goodbye human error

All IoT solutions depend on big data processing and analytics. Automated business intelligence systems that remove humans from the equation (where possible), promise to shrink response times while finding hidden value in vast data sets.

At a city-wide level, even small, automated responses to environmental conditions can have a tremendous impact on the well-being of residents.

As former AVOA CIO Tim Crawford said in an interview with HPE Business Insights: "Imagine in a heat wave, when the power usage is high, if we could adjust the temperatures on thermostats citywide by a couple of degrees and avoid a blackout. We can empower computers to hear, to see, and to smell the world around us—but we need to do it in a smart way."

The dark side of connectivity

The problem is that automatically adjusting people's thermostats, even slightly, can be invasive and even a health hazard. Technologists and policy makers need to consider the health and legal implications of systemic IoT implementations, and provide the ability to opt out where applicable.

Monitoring public use of facilities such as libraries, community centers, waste management, and other public locations with the intention of improving infrastructure can invite abuse. For example, U.S. retailer Nordstrom sparked a backlash when customers realized that sensors were tracking their movements around the store, according to a 2013 report in the New York Times.

Mitre predicts that by 2050, 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities, up 20 percent from today. We need policies and safeguards, along with advanced security and digital defense systems, to ensure the long-term privacy and safety of urban residents and visitors alike.