‘Smart cities’ only as smart as those operating them

Without established standards for security and privacy, so-called smart cities are putting their citizens at risk.

Inside Barcelona’s City Control Room, a team of workers respond to incidents as they appear before them, as small coloured dots on a citywide map.

Some are reports of broken signs or street lights, while others detail potholes in the streets.

The data is submitted by citizens through a smartphone app, which allows them to locate problems and even send photos of them in real-time to the city council.

Last year, more than 45,000 incidents were reported to the control centre. Each case was then prioritised and tracked until city workers could resolve them.


“The system has advantages because it allows us to bring together the data from many different sensors in a way that helps us make decisions,” said Lluis Aymerich, manager of the control room.

The system also takes data from the police and the fire department, as well as thousands of sensors around the city.

From smart rubbish bins, which send out an alert when they are full or if they are set on fire, to sensors in fountains, which provide a continuous flow of water quality data, Barcelona is filled with smart technology.

The LED street lights have their own internet address, which allows those in the control room to switch them on or off separately and regulate their brightness.

There are also noise monitors and traffic sensors – all part of the city’s system aimed at managing the demands and dangers of urban life.

Security and privacy concerns

Earlier this year, Barcelona was ranked as the world’s smartest city, based on how it has integrated its use of the electricity grid, traffic management and lighting.

The city is leading the way in a sector in which cities around the world are expected to spend $100bn over the next four years.

Developers of the technology say it can save cities significant amounts of money and make their services more efficient and more transparent.

Related: Festival of Code aims to help young hackers find jobs

But the rapid growth of the sector has attracted large technology companies, each with its own competing sensors, communications protocols and data analysis platforms.

Most systems use encryption to prevent them from being hacked, but there are no industry-wide security standards.

“The system is only as secure as the people operating it,” said Siim Bobkov from Gridens, an Estonian company using smart systems to remotely manage electricity and lighting systems.

“I think we need some sort of central standards for these city services.”

There are also privacy concerns, as each city is deciding for itself how private data can be used and shared with utility companies or third parties.

“We need to create some kind of standard for security and make it more trustworthy for citizens,” said Mikel Larranaga, a researcher for not-for-profit technology foundation IK4-TEKNIKER.

Building and maintaining the trust of a city’s population is a vital part of the system and without it the technology is unlikely to realise its full potential to enhance the lives of billions of people.

Source: Al Jazeera