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16 Jul 2019

All’s well or Orwell? The pros and cons of smart city infrastructure.

All’s well or Orwell? The pros and cons of smart city infrastructure.

Introduction:

Modern society finds itself at a crossroads in terms of infrastructure development. With talks and developments already underway to implement a digital ecosystem of tracking technologies, cameras, sensors and algorithms to greater optimise our way of life, the era of the ‘Smart City’ is upon us. Integrating our built surroundings into a networked collective promises to provide its denizens with countless conveniences at the expense of uninterrupted user surveillance. But can this smartly integrated utopia of the future become realised without surrendering our right to privacy? 

 

Smart Cities on the rise:

Smart cities have often been reported as an innovative technology on the verge of transforming the way we as a society consider infrastructure and utility management. The reality of the situation is actually a lot closer than we would like to believe, smart cities are taking shape across the world. 

Since the beginning of 2019, Chinese state media has claimed Huaiwai to be at the helm of their smart city construction efforts to integrate AI and 5G technologies into their city management infrastructure. Vice President of Alibaba Liu Song ensured that BIM and digital modelling software are playing a large role in infrastructure development. 

"The digital model should be established on the first day of urban construction, to decide how the infrastructure will be built in line with the changes of city development," - Liu Song

Canada has also been a major site for smart technology innovation as the parent company of Google, Alphabet has unveiled its upcoming plans to transform areas of Toronto into a timber-frame data-driven prototype town of the future

Smaller but still incremental steps have also been conducted in major cities towards making cities smarter. Just last week, London Transport released its plans to utilise Wifi across the London Tube network to track Tub passengers for the sake of monitoring congestion. Across the United States, number plates scanners are on trial at fast-food drive-throughs to minimise the time taken to order food. 

Individually, these services appear to be harmless in their execution and beneficial in streamlining the day to day customs of a users livelihood. There is no doubt that the integration of multiple Internet of Things (IoT) devices will make something significantly more powerful and accommodating that the sum of its parts. 

As driver-less technology becomes widely accepted and access to improved real-time sourced data becomes available via 5G networks, driving could become safer and require less pilot input. Navigational apps could use user-sourced data from a variety of locations to direct travellers across less congested routes. Environmental problems brought about from natural disasters and pollution could be closely monitored with a surveillance network spanning across the entirety of the urban infrastructure landscape.  

 

Always a cost: 

Though smart technologies have advocated for safety and convenience at a minimal expense, the truth of the matter is that citizens choosing to opt into these services will be paying with their personal data and consenting for their sense of privacy to be taken away. Therefore, serious questions must be posed to city authorities to clarify where these vast troves of user-data are appropriately stored and the extent to which they can be tampered with. While surveillance has been a built feature into key transport infrastructure for some time now, smart city planners must be cautious as to not design systems that may discriminate against or forcefully integrate a user into their system. 

Reliant on a mass system of surveillance, smart cities threaten to completely undermine a citizen's right to anonymity. As data sets from system to system continue a build a substantial database of the daily actions and behaviours of its user base, identifiable characteristics are bound to appear. Therein lies the question of data storage and sharing, who is responsible that this data is safely kept from hackers with malicious intent, advertisers seeking to profit from its insights or profiling from law enforcement authorities. 

These concerns have been heightened following the prevalence of social media and internet home appliances such as the GoogleHome and Amazon Echo. However, smart city surveillance appears to be a more insidious matter due to the fact that the cost of opting out of the system may be impossible for city dwellers. Avoiding basic infrastructure or sacrificing internet connection pose massive threats to anyone seeking to commute in and out of the city. 

The difficulty of opting out of a mass surveillance system has already been outlined in a report detailing the hurdles one would have to traverse to avoid facial recognition software utilised in airports across America. Smart systems are becoming increasingly enmeshed so evading the grasp of sensory equipment is already tricky.  

 

Final thoughts Smart cities: 

Investment into Smart Cities infrastructures is not shortening out anytime soon so it is vital that measures be put in place to minimise risks and preserves a user’s right to opt-out of technological systems. The purposes for which data is collected, used and stored should undergo intense scrutiny by cybersecurity experts and policymakers alike. Regular reports communicating information access between user and cooperation would reduce growing concern over transparency risks. 

The inevitable acceleration towards smart cities should not be a topic of anxiety or inherently negative. Harnessing the power of data and accommodative technologies have the potential to alleviate many of the stresses brought about by climate change and overcrowding; however, politicians, programmers, academics and citizen representative must band together to protect user rights to opt-out and privacy from being inundated by smart technologies.   

Interested in the rise of smart technology use in city planning and infrastructure? Check out the digital construction summit taking place during the Sydney Build Expo 2020.

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