Making Smart Cities Safe: Why Good Communication Matters

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by Alexis Leibbrandt

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Smart City projects operate in an area of conflict between the benefits for the citizens of a city and the requirements of data protection. Acceptance varies significantly and depends, among other things, on early and transparent communication.

Making smart cities safe 1

Jonas Schmid, Co-CEO, Head of Smart City & Business Development, akenza

Two years ago, an Operations Center for the Chinese city of Shenzhen was shown at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona. Live data of wanted people and vehicles were shown on a large display, including police approaching. At the same time, a country from the Middle East presented a Smart City advertising video: A little girl forgets her teddy bear in the park and in the evening the police returns it to the girl's home.

We are far away from such smart city approaches in Switzerland and Europe, primarily due to our high data protection requirements. Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether the increasingly networked spaces we live in will make a city more secure. Does more security come at the cost of an increased risk of data theft or data manipulation? How much "smartness" do the citizens of a city accept and actually want?

As PwC writes in its "Smart City Paper", it is the interconnectivity of the virtual and physical infrastructure that makes up a smart city, but which also potentially creates significant security risks. With each additional access point, the vulnerabilities for sensitive data become greater unless they are properly protected. Smart Cities can be vulnerable to numerous cyber attack techniques, such as remote execution of processes and signal interference, as well as traditional means, including malware, data manipulation and denial-of-service attacks. In order to minimize risk, comprehensive smart city plans are needed to protect the clearly "critical infrastructure" on behalf of all stakeholders, from individual citizens to large public and private institutions.

Communication is key

The Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU) experienced firsthand just how important the right communication of smart city or smart building projects is for the "perceived security". It had installed sensors under desks to obtain information about room occupancy and was met with little acceptance in this regard.

"The suspicion seems to be that they want to monitor our attendance”
The newspaper 20 Minuten quotes HSLU employees

A good example of transparent communication of IoT projects in a Smart City, on the other hand, is the city of Carouge in French-speaking Switzerland, where every citizen can use an app on every Smart City sensor to see what data is being recorded.

How cities are becoming safer

There is no doubt that smart city projects improve the security of cities. Some even do so entirely without collecting personal data. In Basel, for example, lifebuoys on the Rhine river were equipped with sensors. As soon as a life ring was removed, the civil engineering office and the police were informed. This eliminated the need for the previously necessary inspections and ensured that the rings were available in case of emergency.

The pains and gains of sharing data

However, it is a reality that for larger smart city projects, a trade-off has to be made: How great is the benefit for the citizen, and how much privacy are citizens willing to give up for it? The willingness to provide data varies greatly. For example, many iPhone users make their data available when they receive up-to-the-minute traffic reports from Google Maps in return. Invasive smart city tools that advertise by recognizing every face in seconds, on the other hand, generate an outcry in Europe. Therefore, the point is to clearly evaluate (and communicate) what benefits a smart city project will bring to the citizens, and whether and why personal data will be collected in the process. Critical infrastructure must be protected by current technologies to avoid cyber threats.