When experiencing the sensory overload that is Barcelona, it’s easy to overlook the gray plastic shields that have recently appeared on lampposts in one of the city’s busiest areas. These shields contain sensor boxes that collect data on everything around them.
Equipped with a hard drive and a wifi-enabled sensor, they can track everything from noise and crowd sizes to pollution and traffic congestion, transmitting the information to a central data service via fiberoptic cable. As Fortune reports, the sensors can even monitor the number of selfies posted to social media in the area.
Barcelona, once famous for its revolutionary artists, has carved out a role in a revolution of a different kind in the last four years, creating a blueprint for the city of the 21st century as urban dwelling becomes even more predominant. According to the UN, in fact, roughly 84% of people will live in cities by the end of this century.
Outfitted with new-world technology beneath its old-world charm, Barcelona was named the world’s smartest city in 2015 by Juniper Research. Singapore took the title the following year, and around the world, city governments are equipping their cities to collect an increasing amount of data on residents and their activities.
Barcelona, London, Boston, Dubai, and Hamburg have begun their transformations into “smart cities,” India has an ambitious goal to revamp 100 its cities by 2022, and Singapore has plans to become the world’s first “Smart Nation.”
These efforts promise to make cities safer, cleaner, more efficient, and more sustainable, but some are raising concerns about how citizens can maintain their privacy when data is being collected all around them.
For cities, the possibilities seem endless. Grappling with tight budgets and rocketing bills, city officials around the world have seized on the tsunami of data as a way to cut costs and overhaul systems that haven’t changed in decades.
Smart cities generally rely on two types of information: real-time data and aggregate data. Sensors aggregate data about a specific place into larger computer networks that then analyze large quantities of information to identify trends. Since the data is aggregated, it’s anonymized and can’t be used to track individuals or gain information about them. This type of aggregate data collection has already been used to monitor popular parking spaces in central London, analyze traffic in Boston to recognize hazards, and to adjust the brightness of streetlights depending on crowd sizes in Barcelona.
However, these cities are also gathering real-time data that does focus on individuals.
In 2013, Renew London piloted a program installing sensors in recycling bins that tracked the wifi signals from passing cell phones. The sensors could then use the phone’s unique media access control (MAC) address to target advertising on the bins to the individual based on their movement within the sensor network. As an example, if an individual frequently passed a particular clothing store or restaurant, they may see more ads for that business.
Renew London attempted to bring targeted advertising that users see online into the real world. However, unlike websites, the company wasn’t legally required to inform people that they were being tracked. After these details came to light, outrage ensued and London’s city government halted Renew’s trial.
But despite this backlash, many cities are still planning to pursue initiatives that gather real-time data. Singapore, as an example, will require all cars to have a satellite navigation system to monitor the location of any vehicle at any given time, including speed and direction, by 2020. The system will enable the government to charge cars parking fees and issue tickets, as well as levy taxes based on how much an individual drives.
Singapore is also testing multiple programs that will gather data about city-wide infrastructure issues including the amount of energy used by individual units of government-sponsored housing, where roughly 80% of its population lives. Elderly and patients with major medical issues could also opt into a program that would monitor movements inside their apartments.
And, of course, as more objects become connected to the internet, they’ll gather even more information.
“Every day—just through our smartphones, credit cards, et cetera—we leave behind us lots of digital footprints, which are recorded thousands of times every day and stored somewhere in the Cloud,” Carlo Ratti, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sensible City Lab, told Futurism. All of this data could enable cities to create new smart city programs, with the intention of making all our lives better.
However, these programs are not without risk. Ratti went on to say, “The worrying thing about this is that we live in an asymmetrical world, where just a few companies and public institutions know a lot about us, while we know little about them.” He warned that companies could be selling personal information for advertising and marketing, or could potentially allow hackers to gain access to information that users aren’t aware they are giving up.
The threat of all this data getting into the hands of hackers is a serious one, and some cities are better equipped to handle the threat than others. As city governments create smarter cities, they will need serious cybersecurity measures or they will risk costly data breaches that could compromise the privacy of their citizens.
According to the chief executive of specialist insurer Hiscox, in 2016 alone, cyber-crime cost the global economy more than $450 billion and over two billion personal records were stolen.
As hackers can easily monetize any type of stolen data, smart cities and smart nations will become prime targets for attacks.
“Now we have nations that are connecting (various services to the internet)” Etay Maor, an executive security advisor at IBM Security, told CNBC. “It’s critical that when these things are designed, when you’re talking about smart nations, security should be a top priority.”
Many governments have started to realize that slapping on a layer of security in later stages of projects is no longer enough. Last year, the Prime Minister of Singapore—which already has a cybersecurity agency—outlined the city-state’s comprehensive strategy to tackle online threats in an effort to protect citizens’ data.
As more and more data is collected about us—and as the threat of hackers looms—it seems now, someone is always watching.