Smart cities could go rogue if we don’t secure the technology

Smart cities could go rogue if we don't secure the technology

As our cities and towns become ever more reliant on connected technology, it is crucial we have a comprehensive national picture of exactly what those technologies are, where they are and what’s being done to keep them – and, therefore, us – safe.

The new government needs to consider adopting a more unified national approach to smart city projects, including a transparent register of smart city projects and the adoption of consistent standards for cyber security, safety and data privacy.

We also need transparency and scrutiny of the partner companies involved in smart city projects. The security and reliability of any technology depends as much if not more on the company that built it as on the council or agency that implements it. As the current concerns swirling around Chinese company Huawei and 5G networks show, decisions about which companies provide the underlying technology for critical infrastructure can have major national security implications.

In our recent project mapping the global expansion of Chinese technology companies, researchers at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre found that Huawei has been involved in 72 smart city, surveillance and public security projects all over the world, from Venezuela to Pakistan to the Czech Republic.

Huawei has been banned from supplying 5G technology (which is widely expected to play a fundamental role in future smart city initiatives) in Australia due to concerns over risks to national security. The obvious question this raises is, if Huawei is not trusted to supply 5G systems, why should it be trusted with other smart cities projects in Australia? Following on from that, if we accept there are some companies that should not be trusted with smart cities projects, what kind of vetting procedures do we need to put in place for technology partners?

Huawei has not been involved in implementing smart city projects in Australia as far as is known (although City of Greater Bendigo representatives did travel to Hong Kong to meet with Huawei executives in relation to the smart city project).

However, Chinese companies feature prominently in many Australian smart city endeavours. In a recent example, the City of Darwin made headlines for its plans to implement a surveillance system, including Wi-Fi tracking, audio recording and “virtual fences”, based on technology from Shenzhen. The same Wi-Fi tracking technology is reportedly being trialled by Brisbane City Council “with great success”.

I have repeatedly asked Darwin Council for details about the companies involved in this smart city project. The council provided the names of the Australian companies installing the technology, but would not give the name of the companies that created the systems, stating the information would be available through City of Darwin OpenGov system after the completion of the project.

It is not clear why the council would be able to divulge the names of the companies installing the systems, but not those which created the technology. It is also not clear why the residents of Darwin should have to wait until after the systems are installed and operating in order to find out exactly what kind of technology is being used to monitor them.

There is also a lack of clarity as to whether facial recognition will form a part of this system either now or in the future. Darwin Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis has denied the cameras being installed as part of the system have facial recognition capabilities, but in an application for a smart cities award in Taiwan, the council’s general manager of innovation, growth and development services, Josh Sattler, wrote that the proposal would include “using number plate and facial recognition system and developing AI Geo fencing [sic].”

The City of Darwin is perfect example of why we need greater visibility and transparency around smart city projects. It shouldn’t be this difficult for citizens to find out what technology is being implemented, by which companies for what purposes, and what steps are being taken to ensure those systems are secure. A public register of smart city projects and a coherent national approach to security, privacy and partner vetting would go a long way towards mitigating the inherent risks of smart city technology.

Connected technology has the potential to revolutionise our cities for the better, and we should fully embrace that potential. We just have to be smart about it.

Elise Thomas is a freelance writer and researcher with the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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