Smart cities must respect privacy at heart

“Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.”  This famous line from Germany's 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, continues to resonate today.

With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) the concept of smart cities is starting to come to life. The futuristic appeal of intelligent household objects coupled with awareness that they also bring security risks inspires awe and distrust in equal measure.

Between the opposing sides Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can be the ideal mediator, providing valuable protection to help smart city businesses and residents reclaim privacy and preserve individual anonymity.

For many, IoT technology still sounds rather futuristic. In fact, it is very much a reality and already helping to improve living standards around the world. Pilot projects in Florida and Colorado are leading the way.

The number of web-connected household devices is expected to reach 34 billion by 2020. Along with accompanying network services this market is expected to be worth more than $1 trillion. In consequence companies like AT&T and Alphabet are sponsoring development of the urban inventions they hope will be indispensable to life in the cities of tomorrow.

From energy meters and street lights, to healthcare systems, industrial plants and transport services, smart cities control everything from traffic congestion, fuel consumption, carbon emissions and road safety as well as weather systems and even toilet flushes.

Vast networks of intelligent interconnected devices can manage, monitor and measure everything we do, producing a mountain of data for interpretation and analysis.

This data mountain, also called big data, will provide valuable information about how people in cities live, how energy is used and how everything interacts with its surroundings. Information that will be vital for helping cities plan for and adapt to changes in environmental conditions and population growth.

Some people, however, believe that smart cities are as likely to be a form of dystopian nightmare to live in as they are to be a force for good.

First, there is the mounting concern that IoT, still in its infancy, is inherently insecure. Already there have been plenty of studies that show how easy it is to hack into smart city technology.  For example, in tests on the streets of Moscow researchers were quickly able to access roadside sensors and gather data from them. Meanwhile in New Jersey a prankster was able to digitally alter a road sign and technicians at Kaspersky Labs have successfully simulated a man-in-the-middle attack on CCTV systems.

Second, the likely consequence of living in a smart city will be a life entirely without privacy. There will, for example, be converged surveillance. In Shanghai almost every bridge now records every passing car’s number plate. Your personal medical information and location data will be known to anyone with access to the city’s co-mingled data silos. Big Brother has finally arrived.

It does not help that the benefits of smart cities thus far have largely gone unnoticed by the general public.

The UK government has invested £50 million in supported of smart city projects in Glasgow, London, Bristol and Peterborough. Yet the British public remains "clueless or indifferent" to smart cities, according to a report released by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

To many the idea of living in a city that knows every aspect of your life is unsettling. Individual privacy is a basic human desire and smart cities must respect this if they are to succeed.

VPNs provide several protective features for both individuals and businesses. As well as the cover of privacy, they afford a layer of anonymity and a degree of security for all web browsing actions that otherwise might be publicly accessible.

Factors to think about when looking for a VPN service are where the provider’s servers are hosted and what the exit points will show your web traffic originating from.

You may also want VPN services to protect mobile device communications and select providers based on how they view and handle your data.

In summary, as populations grow and resources become scarcer, the efficient consumption of limited fuels, goods and materials becomes more important. Proponents of smart cities hail their development as a way to use data to ensure everyone enjoys better living standards.

The next step will be for city planners and IoT manufacturers to work together deliver technology solutions that people actually want and appreciate.

At the same time they must enable VPNs and IT security in general to protect residents and preserve respect for humanity by keeping technology’s intrusion into their lives to a minimum.

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