Canada’s spy agency warns ‘smart city’ platforms pose security risks

Canada’s intelligence service has warned that technological innovations adopted by municipalities could be exploited by adversaries such as the Chinese government to harvest sensitive data, target diaspora communities and interfere in elections.

A newly released report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service urges policy-makers and the technology industry to consider steps that can be taken to address and ease the emerging security threat before “smart city” platforms are widely adopted.

Such systems feature electronically linked devices that gather, analyse, store and transmit information through centralised platforms. In turn, municipalities can use artificial intelligence to efficiently control operations and services, allowing them to change traffic lights at the optimal time, manage energy use or track the location of publicly rented bicycles.

“One of the primary security concerns relating to smart cities is the fact that they necessitate the selection and retention of massive, continuously processed data pools that could be exploited to reveal patterns of individual and societal behaviour,” the report says.
“These concerns are heightened by the lack of control and visibility over where this data is stored and who has access.”

The CSIS report, prepared in 2021, was only recently released to The Canadian Press in response to an access-to-information request filed in October of that year. While the integration of technological innovations and data can make processes more efficient, it can also introduce security risks, CSIS warns.

“Smart city devices collect massive amounts of personal data, including biometric data and other information highlighting personal life choices and patterns. Hostile state actors are currently exploring various means of attaining access to future smart city platforms, including through access provided by state-owned or state-linked technology companies.”

Canadian municipalities may willingly agree to technological partnerships with foreign companies that allow hostile or undemocratic states access to collect data, CSIS cautions.
Smart city projects in western countries have faced pushback due to privacy concerns, but China has “embraced the concept wholeheartedly,” providing the country’s technology companies with a competitive edge, the report says. Beijing’s artificial intelligence advantage lies in its access to big data, lax privacy requirements and cheap labour to categorise data and build AI algorithms.

China is using such new technologies to support “digital authoritarianism,” the use of advanced technology to monitor, repress and manipulate domestic and foreign populations, CSIS says.

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