Traffic jam. Source: iStock

+ Hackers present a terrifying and very real threat to the cities of the future, where vital systems from the water supply to the transport network, will be computerised.

Little by little we are turning our lives over to computers. While that generates great efficiencies it also creates a host of privacy and security concerns. 

For example, when the electrical grid, water supply, financial services and emergency services are all computer-based then a problem with those computers can have drastic consequences. So as we drive forward with smart cities and the internet of things, there’s a risk of things going wrong – either due to problems caused by the complexity of the system or because of a deliberate attack. 

In the city of the future, systems that used to be mechanised – everything from the water supply to the transport network – will become computerised. If people access the computers that control these systems, they can do with them what they want. And given that there’s never been a computer technology that hasn’t been hacked, that seems a very real possibility. 

With computers increasingly connected to each other, a hacker could gain control of a citywide operating system. They could change traffic lights and stop a million vehicles, trap people in elevators or shut down the power grid. People have shown they will do bad things, so there’s no reason why they wouldn’t do something like this if it were possible. Indeed, Brazil’s electricity grid has already been disrupted by cyber attacks

Even with plenty of redundancies and early warnings built in, systems are still vulnerable. When the Stuxnet worm infected the computers in Iranian nuclear power plants, it took over their computer screens – giving engineers the impression that everything remained normal while actually the centrifuges were spinning out of control. 

What can we do about this? Today we are using so much inferior software that I’m not sure it can be patched. The underlying systems are now so complex that I think they’re probably not securable. It may be better to build new systems with different, more secure protocols. 

On the flip side, these systems could in turn be used to make cities of the future more secure places to live. Technology such as advanced CCTV and video analytics and mobile phone tracking could help tackle crime in real time. But it could create a surveillance state and a privacy nightmare. After all, how would you like your car and your mobile phone to track your every movement? 

Given these very real concerns, I’d say we should connect with caution – thinking carefully before deploying technology in our cities. And the same should apply to the ways we might use biotechnology. 

Tweaking biology could enable us to cure disease and do phenomenal things for food and energy production. But the science behind this relies on vulnerable computer systems. Because biology is increasingly becoming an information technology, it too can be hacked. 

The democratisation of biotechnology poses another threat. Where once the ability to write DNA code lay only with top universities, now you can do it with a few hundred dollars worth of equipment. And that means you can create a bioweapon in your garage. 

It may not sound like it, but I’m truly excited about the potential for future cities. I just believe we must consider these issues before it’s too late.