Smart city applications: the future?

It seems that almost anything and everything is getting incorporated into the Internet of Things (IoT) in recent times – and street lights are no exception. That’s at least if plans by the city of Los Angeles are anything to go by, with workers in the City of Angels set to be given the ability to remotely control local street lights.

The proposals involve the attachment of GPS-enabled mobile chips to the street lights already around the city, allowing a city worker to turn individual lights on or off, or even visibly brighten or dim them. The introduction of such technology could bring various benefits, not least reduced costs, given how it would allow energy usage to be restricted to the places and times for which it is actually required.

As Ed Ebrahimian, director of the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting, explained to CNN: “We’ll be able to find out if a light goes out right away, as opposed to waiting for someone to call. It’s really about customer service.” Also exciting for authorities is the scope for coordination with the LA 911 system that would enable lights to be automatically switched on in an emergency, Ebrahimian saying that it “opens the door to all sorts of smart city applications.”

However, not every observer has been convinced of the wisdom of the plan, security analyst Ken Westin telling Infosecurity that the potential for just one human being to control neighbourhood lighting raised the question of how security would be ensured.

Westin commented: “Although they plan to use encryption and secure networks, there are additional considerations that should be taken into account, such as how the firmware in these lights will be updated. Although the system may be ‘secure’ now, as the lights and network become more distributed they become a target for hackers who will identify vulnerabilities in the system and the lights themselves.”

The supplier of the mobile chips, Philips, has provided assurance of “banking-level” encryption technology, adding that the system used cell networks from mobile operators that were more secure than local networks in an effort to ward off potential hackers.

However, Westin deemed these arrangements insufficient, claiming that while using a cellular network was “convenient as they do not need to lay cable”, it nonetheless brought “additional vulnerabilities to the system”. He explained: “A cell jammer can block communication to the devices, and if networks are otherwise unavailable, can make these devices inoperable.”

Westin also warned the LA authorities that this would not be a system that they could “set and forget”, given the “number of moving parts in this system, and given the high profile of the system it makes it an appealing target for thieves.”

Clearly, then, the city will have its work cut out as far as the monitoring and maintenance of such a system is concerned, not merely the installation process. Still, we can’t deny that we’re excited to see how such plans pan out, not least the indication that the results could give of the way the world’s cities function in the future.