Security, Privacy and Governance Risks About Smart City Technologies in Portugal

Security, Privacy and Governance Risks About Smart City Technologies in Portugal

At ASMAA, we believe the real drive for transforming traditional Portuguese cities and villages into SMART Cities really took off in Portugal around 2010.

We may be wrong, but it’s around that time that we started to hear whispers in the grapevine about transforming the country into a SMART country. Those whispers raised our curiosity at the time, but because we were focused on other causes, we put it on the backburner, although we maintained a keen interest ...

Early on in 2012, we at ASMAA really started to follow what was developing within the SMART City context in Portugal, although we didn't make too much noise about it at the time.

We were just observers, but we started collacting data as and when it crossed our paths. And now in 2021, we do have a lot of data collected.

What surprises us at ASMAA is that very little details about the SMART Cities programs have been released to local residents. Most people we have spoken too, many have heard the term, but have no idea what it really means, nor how it will affect their own lives, nor their human right to privacy or security.

However, there's no doubt in our minds that the Portuguese political leaders have the “dream, ambition and "corruptive behaviours to be at the forefront of technological communications infrastructure development in Europe, in line with what is happening in many other parts of the globe.

The incentives in our opinion, at a personal level for the top government leadership (elected and unelected) are many, and for local government leaders that have shown over an over the years, to have an unabated thirst for power, its just too attractive for them to ignore (in our opinion).


Why do we say that? Read on ...

Urban centers worldwide are expanding their reliance on automated sensors and algorithms, but at same time they are also increasing the risk of data security breaches, vulnerabilities to invasions of privacy and concerns about software reliability.

Its a factor, that the demand for smart city technologies shows little sign of slowing down, which comes as no surprise.

Cities are growing in size and population, and the perceived need for digital tools and systems to help manage everything from traffic and public safety to garbage collection and parking meters continues unabated.

In support of what we are stating, we just have to look at technology spending for the global smart city market.

This market is expected to reach between $30 and $40 billion by 2023, according to various market research studies that we have read.

But in our opinion this figure could be substantially higher as it appears that the powers that be have access to bottomless pockets of investment (and tax payers) funds.

However, as urban centers expand their reliance on automated sensors and algorithms that allegedly improve productivity, sustainability and engagement, they proportionally increase risks of data security breaches, vulnerabilities to invasions of privacy and concerns about software reliability - to mention just a few.

The real danger facing residents, is that as SMART cities will be relying more and more on data to drive the governmental and political decision-making process, it raises the serious concern that technocratic governance, or better explained as "surveillance politics", could replace the traditional political process that’s more citizen-driven. Although quickly eroding, we still to a certain extent have some form of a democratic process in place - but with the SMART City model, that will in all probability disapear in time.

A look at Security, Reliability, Behaviour and Privacy

Smart city technology relies largely on wireless IP networks, which have become increasingly vulnerable to hacking. These networks interconnect for greater performance, like electrical grids to reduce power waste, traffic management systems to reduce congestion across a city’s road and highway grid, and smart water and electricity systems that are allegedly designed to improve utility efficiency.

The EU has focused their attention and lots of money on the cyber security risks in smart cities. Many other nations have been dedicating their attention to these risks as well.

In the a US report released in 2015 titled “The Future of Smart Cities: Cyber-Physical Infrastructure Risk”, divided the risks into three areas of impact - cutting across various security considerations for smart infrastructure.

First, the current grid structures that link rural and urban areas - legacy as well as interfacing and new software and infrastructure components - are impacting on existing connectivity grids. As a result, the sectors for transportation, electrical and water systems are becoming more remotely accessible. While this increases connectivity, it also speeds up data flows - while presently increasing security risks. This state of affairs means that municipalities face many difficulties and challenges resulting from the integration of many different systems.

Second, the report raised concerns about “inconsistent adoption” of smart technologies because of limited resources or consumer willingness to use the technology, such as autonomous vehicles.

An uneven transition to these technologies, once again raises issues about security vulnerabilities, like “blind spots” where old and new technologies haven’t fully merged and are able to report problems that have occurred. There’s also the cost issue for utilities that must pay for a smart grid solution while maintaining a manual backup system in case things go wrong.

Third, smart city systems reduce human interaction in order to maximize computer efficiency.

As cities shift to data-driven, sensor-based solutions, the number of security access points will only increase while manual override systems are reduced and human skills to run the systems disappear.

This however will lead to job losses and potential increase in unemployed residents

There’s another consideration relating to the over-reliance of smart systems to run critical pieces of infrastructure or to increase the efficiency of city services. Something could go wrong, and the chances are that it will go wrong. We just have to be cognisant of all the computer systems failures along the years.

These are the sorts of problems that can occur when software programs are used that inherently have “buggy, brittle and hackable” holes and bugs, which in turn will create systemic vulnerabilities across critical infrastructure”.

Then there’s the concern about using technology to squeeze maximum efficiency from infrastructure that might be decades old. If a problem occurs, can a sensor-based water system shut down properly or does it fail catastrophically?

There’s no doubt that the Portuguese critical infrastructure is old, and much already fail regularly. When you take something that is already fragile and add another level of complexity to it, such as smart technology, we have no doubts that's its going to be even harder to maintain the service delivery that smart cities promises, especially in the short to medium term.

A major objective of smart city technologies is to gather data that can measure the real-time awareness of people and activities and then feed information about the impact of those activities back to decision-makers.

Usingbehaviour economics,” according to many of the studies we have read, public officials sees the gathering of mega data as a tool to create policies that they hope will modify human behaviour, using the common government's mantra that it is for the common good - so loved by political figures, but in reality will be used for social conditionning, social engineering or simply just straight brain-washing by these in power. Another application, for example, would be for predictive policing - in our opinion a really dangerous concept.

Another objective involves speed-monitoring devices to encourage people to drive more slowly in residential neighbourhoods.

But let's not have any ilusions, data that is used for the wrong motives, will lead to bad policies, which will lead to an Orwellian type of life typically associated with a police state.

“It’s one thing to gather data and use analytics that lead to more intelligence to nudge a person’s behaviour in an ethical way, but it’s something else when you force someone to do something that constrains their behaviour. For example, smart technology can discriminate against a certain class of people based on data gathered about their profile, forcing them to pay more for services or receive fewer public benefits.

Privacy is the other major concern with smart city technologies, many of which can capture personally identifiable information and household-level data about citizens, and link the information together to create profiles of people and places in order to make decisions about them. Another major risk factor are the smart phone apps, upon which many smart city services rely on to work.

“Each smart phone has unique identifiers that can be accessed and shared by apps, some of which can be captured externally via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals.

These identifiers can be used to track the phone and, by association, its owner.

Although the IDs are pseudonyms, they act as very clear personal markers that have a range of other information attached to them, such as phone numbers, email accounts, messaging logs, address books, social media accounts, credit card details, etc., as well as inferred information such as home and work addresses.


Technocratic Governance / Surveillance Governance / Police State

ASMAA's opinion, is that the most serious risk with smart city technology for residents is the need for analytical software to interpret the vast flows of information from sensors and other data collecting systems. (The Internet of Things)

As the reliance by city officials on data analytics growth, there are concerns that technology could measure and monitor all aspects of city life, implying that cities are rational machines rather than a complex system full of problems and competing interests.

This leaves everyone impacted with the risk that city official places strong emphasis on creating technical solutions that promote a top-down technocratic form of governance, rather than political and social solutions that are citizen-driven as its expected within a democratic state.

In our view, the worst nightmare that we could all possibly face in the future, is that smart city solutions will be turned against citizens should the political landscape shift from a benign democratic form of government to an autocratic one.

Imagine a scenario in which a smart city that falls into the hands of a repressive regime, which turns public safety and transportation monitoring sensors into surveillance tools for example. We don’t need to look hard, we just need to understand what is common in China, and lately in Israel – just look at their actions regarding the SARS-COV2 pandemic policy enforcement.

That is a warning to every freedom-loving citizen, irrespective of where you are living. The risks are at the door …

To conclude

Given the broad range of risks that we have illustrated in this article, it’s easy to understand why we shout a strong word of warning. If we don’t want to live in a surveillance or police state, we have to motivate our city officials and government to throttle back many of the initiatives that are already underway or in the planning phase.

We have to stand-up for our rights before its too late.





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