Smart cities are the future, but they could threaten privacy
Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “Smart City” – a futuristic, utopian idea that we could see implemented in the near future. In fact, some cities – such as Singapore, Seoul, Amsterdam, Oslo and Tokyo – are already on their way to becoming “smart”.
So what is a smart city? That label is still pretty abstract and can mean a lot of different things, but if you go the boring route and really google it, you will come across this uniform definition: an associated community that uses sensors and other methods to collect and measure data use to improve its performance.
In other words, a smart city is a place where devices are connected to a common infrastructure. As a result, everything that happens in this infrastructure is analyzed in real time for various goals, such as reducing costs and resource consumption or improving communication between citizens and government.
Connected: Speaking of the digital future: Smart City
However, as you may have guessed, connecting to data and managing access to smart devices is a slippery slope. Its dangers are perhaps most evident in a 2007 mural by Bansky painted on the wall of a Royal Mail office in London. It shows a child writing “One Nation Under CCTV” while being watched by a police officer and a dog. The whole piece is sewn together to fit close to an actual CCTV camera.
Yes, public video surveillance can help police collect evidence (and potentially deter crime, although its effectiveness has been questioned), but the side effects it causes to society – like the feeling of being watched and potential cases of CCTV – Abuse – are harrowing.
And that happens in a democratic society. Now imagine this dangerous, unpredictable dark side of building smart city apps under a dictatorship. In fact, there’s a prime example: China’s infamous social credit system – a collection of databases used to track the “trustworthiness” of individuals – essentially tracks your life 24 hours a day, assessing your loyalty to the state, and deciding whether you are good enough citizens to enjoy shorter waiting times in the hospital or to get priority admission and work.
Smart city without intermediaries
After six years of working on research and development projects testing the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), Ethereum, and Substrates to create secure Internet of Things (IoT) applications, I defined a part that changed can be to most of the side effects.
The design of the smart city infrastructure has a single point of failure. If you try to access services / devices (e.g. rent a car via a car pooling app), your data will be transferred to an IT company and, after a check, this IT company will decide whether to grant you access to its services . While a company must assess risks before providing its services to you (if they are not needed), the process is unfair to the end user. Anytime someone collects data, chances are they are either collecting more data than necessary or using your sensitive data for additional profit (like selling to data brokers).
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Fortunately, blockchain technology enables us to combine all of the economic and technical details of a particular transaction into one “atomic” transaction that no middleman can read and abuse. It allows users to send messages directly to smart devices (vending machines, cars, lockers or parking meters) with payment and all the technical details for the service they are using.
Now imagine that all of these devices are cross-chain messaging (XCMP) connected and fully synchronized with each other, and analyze your transactions with only one purpose: to provide better service. In addition, Polkadot-enabled IoT devices share the security achieved through relay chains – the core component of the network – and other sophisticated mechanisms that by design block most attack vectors.
Isn’t that the same as the utopian smart city future described above, minus all negative side effects?
Operating a smart city via blockchain means thousands of transactions per minute, which the congested Ethereum network cannot handle – at least for now. On the other hand, Polkadot can offer both economic and transactional scalability by allowing a common set of validators to secure multiple blockchains and distribute transactions across them.
Sergei Lonshakov is the founder and visionary leader at Airalab and architect of the Robonomics Network – a futuristic, secure, serverless Internet of Things platform on Ethereum and Polkadot.