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Communications of the ACM


Security Done Right Can Make Smart Cities Wise

key shape within a city grid, illustration

Credit: Alexzel, Andrij Borys Associates

In 1995, as the Internet became commercialized, visionary architect Bill Mitchell published City of Bits,1 an exploration of how digital technology could profoundly change the structure and function of cities while cyberspace evolves to complement physical spaces. Information and communication technology (ICT) has embodied his title in even more ways than he might have guessed, and it promises to continue to do so. The 21st-century evolution of so-called smart cities partly realizes Mitchell's vision. Across smart cities worldwide, data is the common denominator, thanks to the various ICT applications that collect and share data, often through devices associated with the Internet of Things (IoT). The centrality of data drives many of the security concerns, as well as privacy concerns, for smart cities. Indeed, when the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology looked in 2016 at the range of technologies that can enhance cities, they moved from discounting smart-city hype to concluding that urban technology progress hinges on data—data collection, data analysis, and data integration.3 Notwithstanding enormous innovation and proliferating pilot projects around the world, smart cities remain in a phase of experimentation and development. Among the lessons being learned is how important security is to smart cities—to achieving the benefits of different applications and to avoiding the kinds of problems observed increasingly when the confidentiality, integrity, and/or availability of data systems for infrastructure and services are compromised. It is time to ensure that security for smart cities is addressed early and often, including by engaging city residents in the process.

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Why Smart Cities?

Smart cities promise genuine benefits to city governments and residents in terms of sustainability (through improved energy and water management), efficiency (through improved resource utilization and service delivery), public health (through air and water quality monitoring and public health hot-spotting), and equity (through improved distribution of urban activity and access to services).5 The quest for such benefits led many of the first smart-city efforts to address challenges involving congestion and mobility. For example, multimodal transportation coordination is growing, often with a goal of diminishing the use of personal vehicles. Mobility as a service (MaaS) facilitates access to and integration of information on public transportation, micromobility (for example, bike- and scooter-sharing services), and other options. Both private and public actors are advancing MaaS. Many city governments seek to leverage if not directly offer MaaS services, and rideshare and transportation network companies are moving to offer information about how their service can connect to public transportation. These data-fueled mobility enhancements and the coordination benefits from evolving MaaS present the benign face of smart cities.


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