Smart City: Addressing Privacy Issues

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A new trend has emerged among modern cities around the world: the smart city.

The smart city is an urban aggregate that collects data and makes use of technological innovations in order to improve the lives of citizens and manage resources optimally. Despite the undoubted advantages arising from digital transformation and IoT (Internet of Things) technology, there is a strong debate about the protection of citizens’ privacy. In this JOurnal article we’ll see what the term smart city means, which are its benefits and why, despite these, doubts remain.

THE ADVANTAGES OF SMART CITIES

Many are the benefits of smart cities and, among these, the main ones are highlighted below.

EFFICIENCY

The ability to collect and process big data at the urban level allows the smart city to obtain information that it would not otherwise have been able to find. The ability to constantly monitor metrics of interest in real time allows for better service while preventing damage.

Not to be outdone is the time that smart cities can save city officials and employees, businesses and residents. Standardizing operations and controlling infrastructure helps cities optimize not only time, but also economic resources. Software such as Zenon, for example, allows for the monitoring of signage or, again, identifying and communicating any vacancies in parking lots, thus making it easier to navigate cities, saving citizens time and reducing their frustration.

Increased efficiency results not only in a cut in costs and resources used for the various services, but ultimately also in a significant return on investment.

SECURITY

A smart city is also a safer city, thanks to the use of cutting-edge technologies and video surveillance systems that allow for greater control of urban areas, making crime less likely to occur. For example, in tunnels or galleries, fire alarms or connected lighting systems can enable remote control and thus greater security of the infrastructure.

SUSTAINABLE ENVIRONMENT

Of high importance, especially currently given the high sensitivity to the issue at hand, is the circumstance that smart cities help the environment by becoming more sustainable cities. For example, again with reference to Zenon, it is possible to manage and optimize renewable energy plants, also making it easier to manage distributed resources.

A MORE DIGITAL WORLD

A fundamental element underlying a smart city is the telecommunications network. A smart city is also a more connected city, reducing distances through a more digital environment made up, for example, of wi-fi access in various points of the city.

We have seen what are some of the main benefits of a smart city, but the problems of such cities are by no means minor.

INTERNET OF THINGS

Internet of Things is a system of technologies aimed at optimising connection between devices and is the innovation that more than any other is helping to re-shaping our cities. In addition to traditional computers and smartphones, today it also integrates everyday objects, from wearable devices to driver assistance devices.

The application of IoT may involve virtually any aspect of urban life: public services, rational waste disposal, adaptive public lighting, e-commerce and reverse logistics, smart mobility, home automation.

The technological shift towards the smart city has occurred substantially due to the possibility of translating large packets of information (big data) into real-time improvement of urban services.

Governments and public agencies, in the past, have already expressed concerns regarding the wide use of these technologies:

THE WEAKNESSES OF SMART CITIES

Despite the advantages, privacy issues still cause resistance in the population. The reason is simple: the smart city revolves entirely around the collection and processing of data.

A report by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Deloitte, analyses interviews with experts and officials of the 36 Pioneer Cities between January and March 2021 and, on the basis of certain parameters, highlights the weaknesses that smart cities share regarding privacy and accessibility:

These critical points need to be addressed to avoid critical issues in the long term, as noted by the WEF.

Among these difficulties, more attention is paid below to the protection of privacy.

THE PANDEMIC'S PUSH FOR SMART CITIES

The coronavirus pandemic and the measures to control the outbreaks have given a strong boost to the development of smart cities. European funding provided through the Recovery Fund, among other things, will be used precisely for energy efficiency and sustainability solutions that rely heavily on smart applications.

Moreover, the spread of smart working will, to a certain extent, lead to an outflow from large cities to more human-scale centres. Small and medium-sized cities, in order to make themselves attractive to potential residents, will need to equip themselves with innovative infrastructures and implement solutions that fall under the concept of the smart city.

PRIVACY IN SMART CITIES

The term privacy refers to the right to confidentiality of personal information and private life. The latest regulations for privacy were created precisely to safeguard the private sphere of the individual, in order to prevent certain information from being divulged without the authorization of the person concerned.

As mentioned, the smart city is born from sharing information, impacting on services and infrastructures of urban life.

The collection of data on which it is based, however, makes citizens fear the loss of privacy. Its rightful application, in fact, should be enforced by placing greater emphasis on cyber-security practices, both for the protection of personal data and for the protection of sensitive areas of the city.

The “Clusit Report 2021 on ICT security in Italy” notes that globally there were 1,871 serious cyberattacks, an increase of 12% compared to the previous year and even 66% compared to 2017.

However, despite this significant increase, the measures to resolve this issue, as well as the investments made on the subject by the public administration, are still really scarce.

THE FUTURE OF SMART CITIES IN THE HANDS OF PRIVACY RULES

Smart cities certainly represent an ideal future: a smart, technological, connected, agile future. But to make this happen it is necessary to protect the privacy of citizens, the main factor that could slow down the evolution of smart cities. This is a real governance issue.

Rules need to be established to protect the safety of everyone’s personal data; rules that are prepared to warn citizens about the collection of their data and its analysis. And, of course, this collection should only take place for essential services.

As we know, however, regulations take time to be approved. If the process of urban digitalization goes on without compliance, it will be the people who will have to find ways to protect their privacy themselves. They could do this, for example, by using a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting to a public network.

And, like the VPN, there are a number of alternative ways to self-protect, pending the approval of rules that will ensure an efficient protection of everyone’s privacy and therefore a faster and safer evolution of smart cities.

WITHOUT COMPLIANCE THERE ARE NO SMART CITIES

There are two main compliance issues related to smart cities: on the one hand, public administrations must ensure compliance with privacy regulations and, on the other hand, that personal data collected must be protected. The application of the highest cybersecurity standards is therefore a necessary condition for the evolution towards smart cities.

There are several European regulations that over the years have laid the foundations for a cybersecurity plan, but only recently has Italy prepared to implement the regulations. In June 2021, in particular, the Draghi government established the National Cybersecurity Agency, with the task of coordinating initiatives and activities and spreading the culture of cyber-safety.

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