2024 – A Smart Odyssey

A cold and gray dawn in the suburban neighborhood I live in. On my way to work, I spot the carefully placed digital billboard announcing that “85% of the people living here didn’t sleep well” and therefore concluding with “please drive overly careful today”. Count me in, not that I didn’t sleep well but some smart-ass cracked my home network and made my refrigerator pretend that there is still enough coffee to go another week. There wasn’t. Piggybacking on my wifi to launch a distributed denial-of-service attack against the local administration for whatever reason is one thing, but messing with my coffee supply means war. 

This is pretty much how a morning in a 2024 smart city could look like.

Sounds familiar? No? It will soon. Cloud, big data, smart cities, we connect everything and capacitate it to do so many things which make life more comfortable through, for example, learning and studying options over the internet. What we don’t do is to capacitate those who use and develop the clouds, big data sensors, and smart city services. During times when companies and states will fight for access to water, secure their borders against refugees and continue ignoring the world’s pollution why would a refrigerator that doesn’t automatically order coffee as it is supposed to matter?

It’s not about the coffee, though a lack of sufficient supply might prove seriously inconvenient to some people. Technical developments in the past century have made our lives comfortable at fingertips. They revolutionized the way we live by providing extra time a luxury. Technologies that are being developed to improve our way of life pay no attention to security: function has to follow form. For this reason, cities are getting smarter at an unbelievable pace without getting more secure, au contraire. There’ll be more inequality and more violence. You bet!

First and foremost, security means the protection of territory, integrity of the government and safety of the people. Achieving the latter seems to be traditionally taken care of by law enforcement, army, and social welfare. However, revisiting this shows that the challenges are traditional. Now, they move at a pace that makes modern obsolete. Everything is connected. Everything can be attacked from everywhere in the world at any time. Neither army nor police can size up to the exponential threat this connectedness poses.

Back to square one. Someone cracks your phone and has access to all your contacts, e-mails, text messages, banking data and so on. Insecurity abounds but this is only 2018. Ten years into the future and this connectedness allows someone to open up your house, get you fired, ruin your marriage and drive your car, with you in it, against a tree. Multiply that by every person in the country and you have got your serious security challenge. Historically, it has also to do with hypocrisy, as many Christians know all about!

Highly complex technologies, collecting large amounts of information and providing the ability to access various service and communication through a swipe on a touchscreen, are genuinely neither good or bad. It boils down to what they are used for. In 2018, the discussion evolves around privacy or the lack thereof. In 2024 the discussion will focus on security and not on an individual level but on a collective level, the life in a smart city.

This challenge is unique because its underlying technology has been developed for an entirely different purpose, something some psychiatrists like Hermann Rorschach know all about.  Running a whole city with millions of citizens on this technology is entirely different to connecting five universities to exchange e-mails. The lack of awareness and the unintelligible disposition to sacrifice every last bit of security for more usability and supposedly efficient use of resources aggravates the situation.

A lot of people relying on a technology and it being designed without a particular fondness of security would not necessarily lead to a major security challenge per se. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad guys who can benefit from easily accessing your car, house or refrigerator. Jealous spouses, criminals, terrorists, intelligence services – you name it. All of them enjoying plausible denial based on the lack of proper attribution mechanisms inherent to the very technology they are abusing like also is happening on a global scale for example in the Ukraine conflict

What is left to say? The smart city is the ultimate security challenge of 2024. With its attractiveness for the bad guys based on a low risk of exposure, poor security precautions due to design and perception flaws as well as sheer endless human and digital targets, the smart city presents a low risk-high reward objective for a variety of stakeholders. Only a determined and integrated approach towards responsive security in the establishment of smart cities will be able to help to mitigate this challenge.