open menu

Keep you up to date!
Register now or Login

EN | ES | SE | TR

Cyber attacks – Are smart cities safer or more vulnerable?

Does technology expose cities more to terrorist attacks? We asked urban technology expert Francis Pisani

In the wake of the Brussels bombings, the French blogger Francis Pisani addressed the quandaries of modern, connected European cities facing terrorist threats. There is no simple answer to attacks, he noted, but most measures have an impact on our mobility.

More controls mean that we need to wait for our luggage to be X-rayed, or to line up for double checks at a gate. And many train stations are slowly turning to airport-like security measures. Mobility, a feature of modern, connected economies, is the first victim of security.

A freelance journalist with credits in various French newspapers and an enduring interest in information technology (IT), Pisani embarked on a world tour in 2012 and 2014 to look for examples of urban innovation.  He then gave a clued-up account of this in an ebook published by the UNESCO (available in English and French).

Most of his recent work is devoted to studying and reporting examples of participatory technologies that can improve city life.


Let's start with the basics. You have often criticized the term “smart cities”. Why?
The sociologist and politician Jean-Louis Missika once said the term smart city is a pleonasm because humanity has not done anything more intelligent than cities. I agree with him: all cities are smart. So I think the question becomes: what is the process to make a city smarter?

In this process, I see a tension between what I call the datapolis, a city based on data, and participolis, which thrives on participation and where citizens use IT while also contributing with their minds.

During my tour I was amazed to see how many applications people create independently of any municipality. And that’s where you find most smartness. After all, the internet has evolved in a similar way: with the web 2.0, we moved from an architecture of data to one of participation.


Can cities use technologies to improve security without sacrificing our freedom to travel?
I think they can, but always at the expense of our privacy. For example, airports or stations can create a fast lane for those who accept background checks, biometric controls or smart cards connected to databases which expose their privacy to the authorities. Or they can facilitate security with pervasive cameras and sensors that also have an impact on privacy.

Someone who promises more security, mobility and privacy at the same time just isn’t credible. It’s just an illusion: there is always a trade-off in one of these variables.

Negotiating between these needs should be a central topic in the political debate. I would like to see politicians who are technology-savvy and to put the question high on their agenda, but it's not happening.

City officials often have a poor understanding of technology. Many just want their cities to be “smart”, and give the keys to IT companies that say: we are going to make it happen! That’s not the best way to proceed. 

Cities should have an autonomous and participative strategy and then look around for the best technological solution. In Lyon, for example, the city decided what they wanted, they control the data, and the IT company only provides the technology they need.


Are smart cities safer, or are they more vulnerable, because their infrastructure can be a target for cyber criminals?
As the number of connected objects increases, cyber criminals have bigger targets and we become more dependent on electricity. In this regard, connected cities are more vulnerable.

However, disconnecting is not the solution. We are moving from an internet of people to an internet of everything, with billions of connected objects, of which only a few are seriously protected from intrusion. The problem is the lack of awareness about how fragile the system is.

Many cities want to use IT massively, but they don’t have a budget to protect their systems, and this is a source of weakness.


The city of Fresno, in California, has been strongly criticized for using a number-crunching system to allegedly prevent crimes. Are you aware of any cases where IT is used to prevent crimes effectively?
I don’t know of many technologies today that are useful in crime prevention. CCTV cameras have indeed been key to identifying and capturing many terrorists responsible for attacks, including the recent ones in Brussels, but only after the facts. And studies in the UK show that these cameras, which today are part of IT networks, have only a modest effect in preventing crime.

The point is nothing will ever guarantee that a city is hundred percent safe. Therefore, we should focus on resilience rather than security. The difference is that you can still do your best to protect yourself, but accepting the notion of failure.

Connected and participative communities are indeed more resilient. After Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima disaster, authorities and citizens installed Wi-Fi spots to use social networks. There are emergency platforms like Ushahidi, CityHero or the Lebanese-made Ma2too3a where people share alerts about dangers, protests, arrests, clashes and even snipers. We can use Twitter and Facebook to tell others that we are safe.

A company in Ghana, for example, has launched an application that sends an SOS message to your friends, neighbours and even local radio stations if your house is burgled or if you are in distress. I believe in the effectiveness of participative initiatives, and I think this is an interesting example.


You live in Barcelona, which ranks as one of the smartest cities. Is that why  you moved there? In general, do people find smart cities more attractive?
I don't know of anybody who moved to a city because it is supposed to be smarter. When I was in Korea, I visited Songdo, a place designed to be "smart" and found out that they have problems to get people to live there.

I certainly did not move to Barcelona because it's smart - as I said, I think all cities are - but rather because it's trying to go forward: it’s a creative ecosystem. You will never get me to say that one place is better than another. I only see good  and bad examples, and Barcelona is certainly a good one.


By Sergio Pistoi

26 May 2016


Photo credit: Laetitia Attali, courtesy of F. Pisani