Hackable Cities

Every important new technology, it seems, comes with both exciting potential to improve the quality of our lives and a dangerous downside that we can never be sure we fully understand. A recent report from New America Foundation applies this logic to the "smart cities" of the future.


The upside: Wiring up every street lamp, traffic light, sewer pipe, and power line to the internet will create huge opportunities for cities to use their resources more efficiently. Cities that can reduce their electricity and water use or automate the flow of traffic will cut pollution while freeing up money to invest in other things that benefit citizens, like public safety or better services.

The downside: Anything "smart" can be hacked, particularly if it's badly managed or poorly protected. Smart cities will give bad people an exponentially greater opportunity to create havoc and disrupt the lives of millions of people.

There's a precedent: The city of Atlanta was hit with a ransomware attack last year that knocked its court system, police, and other city services offline. With smart cities, the potential for large-scale damage is much greater.

Smart technologies can leave citizens vulnerable to a terrorist organization that wants to score a major hit on an entire city, a foreign government that wants to subvert a rival, a domestic government that wants to punish cities it considers opposition strongholds, an organized crime organization looking to extort a ransom, or an anarchist group that attacks simply because it can.

Other questions raised by the report: Do city officials understand these technologies well enough to interact intelligently with technology firms? Do they have enough support from state, federal, or other partners to ask the hard questions about the economic and safety implications of smart city technologies?

The emerging reality: Both the upside and downside will be with us sooner than you might think. At least 26 smart cities are expected to be constructed over the next six years. There's a risk that engineers will master the technology and political officials will implement it before anyone fully understands the vulnerabilities it creates.

Last week, in Fulton, WI, together with election officials from the state of Wisconsin and the election technology company VotingWorks, Microsoft piloted ElectionGuard in an actual election for the first time.

As voters in Fulton cast ballots in a primary election for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates, the official count was tallied using paper ballots as usual. However, ElectionGuard also provided an encrypted digital tally of the vote that enabled voters to confirm their votes have been counted and not altered. The pilot is one step in a deliberate and careful process to get ElectionGuard right before it's used more broadly across the country.

Read more about the process at Microsoft On The Issues.

The risk of a major technology blow-up between the US and Europe is growing. A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the European Union wanted to boost its "technological sovereignty" by tightening its oversight of Big Tech and promoting its own alternatives to big US and Chinese firms in areas like cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her top digital officials unveiled their first concrete proposals for regulating AI, and pledged to invest billions of euros to turn Europe into a data superpower.

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Communal violence in Delhi: Over the past few days, India's capital city has seen its deadliest communal violence in decades. This week's surge in mob violence began as a standoff between protesters against a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against India's Muslims and the law's Hindu nationalist defenders. Clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs in majority-Muslim neighborhoods in northeast Delhi have killed at least 11 people, both Muslim and Hindu, since Sunday. We're watching to see how Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government responds – Delhi's police force reports to federal, rather than local, officials.

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Ian Bremmer's perspective on what's happening in geopolitics:

What are the takeaways from President Trump's visit to India?

No trade deal, in part because Modi is less popular and he's less willing to focus on economic liberalization. It's about nationalism right now. Hard to get that done. But the India US defense relationship continues to get more robust. In part, those are concerns about China and Russia.

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27,000: The Emir of Qatar has decreed a $27,000 fine and up to five years in prison for anyone who publishes, posts, or repost content that aims to "harm the national interest" or "stir up public opinion." No word on whether the Doha-based Al-Jazeera network, long a ferocious and incisive critic of other Arab governments, will be held to the same standard.

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