With several cities across Canada having won IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge Grants, which puts IBM specialists on the ground in each of the cities for three weeks to address some of the critical challenges facing cities today, and in the near-future. Winning cities include Edmonton, Surrey, and Ottawa. IBM has already completed its work in Edmonton, where they stepped in to improve traffic and road safety through improved and centralized data analysis (1) . IBM’s Smarter Cities program aims to tear down information silos, connect disparate services, reduce costs, improve efficiencies, and, all-in-all, make cities more efficient and better places to live, learn, and work (2) .
As mentioned in my previous post (3), Ottawa will be utilizing their winning of this consultant work to better examine how to improve business and transit integration and developement around the new stations for its future Light Rail system (LRT) (4). This will likely also include examining security in the new stations, centralizing data, and looking at ways to improve future operations, integrations, and, of course, sell IBM software and cloud services to manage the growth. As mentioned, the consultation is free as a part of IBM’s three-year challenge, but the recommendations will be skewed to provide IBM with both one-time business and recurring subscription services through the use of its software, servers, and expertise. These costs are neither unexpected nor unusual. The costs unlikely to garner attention are the ones that we need to be more concerned about: data security, individual privacy, and surveillance.
IBM’s Smarter Cities proposal sounds fantastic as it is presented, with all information centralized to be shared between the areas that require it. For example, with social services having access to financial data, health data, housing data, etc, to better predict your needs, get you on the programs you require, prevent fraud, and remove people from programs automatically as they no longer qualify (and thereby saving cities, provinces, and the nation money). We currently store information separately, in individual silos, as a way to protect our privacy in the case of a breach. Combining all of our information into a centralized system will make things quicker to access, allowing increased convenience in obtaining services, but also allowing increased difficulties if a breach is created. The centralized system, operated by propriety software, allows access by anyone with appropriate credentials, IBM access, or the hacking skills to circumvent security protocols. This means all your health, financial, social services, birth, relationship, and other records can be downloaded, copied, sent overseas, impersonated and altered by anyone that can touch them. Talk about a scary thought.
This information could be compiled to build a profile of your private life, using the information you thought was “safe” because it was part of a smarter system. The driver’s license or health card photos, now the same image to reduce redundancy, could be used in facial recognition software hooked into the centralized surveillance system, setup to “protect your safety,” to identify your personal comings and goings. This security system would even go a step beyond that in the UK, as it would be allowed to analyze your image throughout all smarter city databases, and by extension, any smarter province or nation systems as things get linked to develop a “smarter planet”. And if by some fluke you’re in an area not monitored by surveillance cameras, the RFID technology (5)(6) would continue to track your movement and usage of different systems, under the guise of using analytics to make things better.
We’re already seeing the transit silos begin to be broken down through the use of shared, centralized transit payment systems. Much of Southern Ontario has adopted the PRESTO card system, with Ottawa additing its transit system to the mix later this spring (7). This smartcard system allows an individual to load money onto a single card, allowing for easy payment on nearly a dozen different transit systems, including the addition of monthly (or even “work-day”) passes within individual transit systems. So I can have an Ottawa monthly-pass on my PRESTO card, plus cash stored on the card for use when I take a weekend trip to Toronto, Brampton, Hamilton, Oakville, etc. The transit movements are tracked and recorded on PRESTO’s centralized system, allowing me to make use of these expenses with the Fed’s Public Transit Tax Credit. It also effectively tracks my movements, allowing stalkers/terrorists with hacking skills and law enforcement personnal the evidence to see exactly which routes I took, where I got on and off the bus/train, and which stations I may have entered, but not utilized (because the bus was so far behind it was quicker to walk).
The idea of complete system integration can be very appealing. IBM and PRESTO both tout increased convenience, decreased costs, greater safety and accessibility as key features in their programs. These are very alluring aspects that are attractive to governments, businesses, law enforcement, and even to many citizens. The cost amounts to not only putting all your information eggs in a single basket, but also allowing every step you take to be monitored as you interact, or even move near these integrated systems. IBM & PRESTO both make no attempt, and even brag about their use of sensors on infrastructure, GPS, mobile devices, satellites, reservation systems, smartfare cards, RFID chips, video surveillance, data centralization, advanced analytic software, and cloud computing as a way to collect, sort, analyze, and manage data and systems. As with all advances, the same old threats remain and it becomes a challege to balance universal convenience with individual privacy. The movement toward integrated data silos and advanced surveillance systems needs to be taken cautiously, with an eye for how the same old threats could find their way into the system.
There is a reason, after all, why we aren’t supposed to keep our birth certificate, SIN card, passport, and other identifying documents in a single location: if its all in one place, it’s all stolen together. Identity theft is a growing problem, and complete integration makes that threat not only easier, it also makes it more devastating and harder to recover.
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Great entry. I disagree with your emphasis, though. To me, the danger of data centralization IS data centralization. No person, organization, or government should know more about me than is absolutely necessary for them to do what I have explicitly authorized them to. I don’t want my government to compromise my privacy in the name of making life “easier” and certainly not “safer”.
I want the freedom to live my life without undue scrutiny. Is that so much to ask?