Author profile picture

Good ideas are pouring in which are set to improve the city. Usually these are combined with the availability of digital information that is passed on very promptly so residents can move around their city or town more easily. Physically or digitally. Think about, for example, the online services for citizens’ affairs. Passport application? This can be done by applying for it digitally. Rubbish bin full? Then a sensor tells the municipality to send a truck to empty it. Is there a lot of traffic because of an event in a stadium? Then the traffic department can control the traffic lights in advance in such a way that the cars are able to move around more quickly. Is there a traffic jam somewhere? Sensors in the road surface tell the traffic department that the speed on adjoining roads must be reduced in order to prevent them from clogging up as well.

However, the downside of all these smart systems which we seem to embrace, is that all these digital information systems can also be hacked. If that happens, all the municipalities that are affected will be pretty much knocked out. “Suppose that a hacker puts red crosses on all the traffic signs on the A10 ring road near Amsterdam,” says Hans Nouwens, director of National Smart City Living Lab, a research agency that deals with the participation of citizens in the digitisation of their living environment. “Then all the roads in the neighbourhood would get bogged down in no time.”


Nowadays, smart cities run this risk because of their dependence on digital information systems. The only question is: which hacker would do such a thing? “The real cyber war is taking place in other areas, such as between countries that attack each other’s weapon systems,” says Nouwens. ” On an urban level, I don’t expect anyone to hack into the systems. But it can be done.”

Read more about Smart Cities here at Innovation Origins

But there are also some other risks. Firstly, over the past decade, so many new digital registration systems have been added to the public domain that it is becoming a hotchpotch. Digitisation is inevitable if you want to keep up with the times as a municipality, says Nouwens. “But who knows at the moment what kind of systems are running and what kind of monitoring equipment is installed where? This is not a problem for systems for which a permit is required to install them. Usually a registration can be found in the council registry. But when it comes to air measurement systems that a private organization installs without having to apply for a permit, only the person who installs them probably knows that they exist or where they are.”

Registered without consent

A second risk is that, as a citizen, you have no choice as to whether or not you want to be registered at places in the public domain. Such as in places where a camera is mounted, for example. “There you do not have the option to refuse a cookie, as is the case with the Internet. Your presence is recorded by a camera if it is located where you are. Whether you like it or not. Sometimes you don’t even know that you are being filmed.”

On top of that, there is the added complexity that citizens themselves also install cameras in their homes. They film passers-by as well, even though this is not permitted by law. “It’s almost impossible to check whether cameras are installed illegally or not,” says Nouwens. This is only possible if the law is strictly enforced. “So you don’t really know what the owner of the camera does with any images they capture.”

Commercial use of private data

According to Nouwens, a third risk is that the government may outsource the management of information systems to internet companies that could use the information generated by them commercially, such as for the sale of products. “In Toronto, a district that has been made very smart in cooperation with the municipality together with Google. It measures, so to speak, how often someone flushes a toilet, opens and closes a refrigerator, and so on. This seems useful for monitoring the elderly, for instance, or small children. But what if all this information is used to sell products to these residents? That’s not what the project was meant for. We need to talk to residents about the use of all these information systems. In principle, they do contribute to the functioning of democracy because it is easy for everyone to see how clean or polluted the air is somewhere when you install meters everywhere, or how many accidents take place in certain streets. This allows you to quickly intervene. However, it is important for governments to share this information with their citizens.”

The Smart City Expo World Congress 2019 (SCEWC) will take place in Barcelona from 17 to 21 November, with the participation of various Dutch organizations. In the run-up to the summit, an event will take place in Utrecht on 10 October. You can register here.