Dumbstruck city: big, brittle, not so smart

A city that seems smart one moment can look like the dumbest thing alive the next moment. All it takes is one little cloud outage.

We’ve taken cloud outages in stride. After all, how often does it really matter if you place an Amazon order now or in an hour or two? But what if the cloud locks or unlocks your front door?

Fainting ladies

I’ve been reading up on “smart cities.” Anthony Townsend, in his article “Smart Cities: Buggy and Brittle” — from 2013 and still fresh — says yes, worry. Start with the cellular networks.

Cellular networks … are the fainting ladies of the network world — when the heat is on, they’re the first to go down and make the biggest fuss as they do so.

All networks are vulnerable, and outages have ever higher stakes.

Cloud-computing outages could turn smart cities into zombies. Biometric authentication, for instance, which senses our unique physical characteristics to identify individuals, will increasingly determine our rights and privileges as we move through the city — granting physical access to buildings and rooms, personalizing environments, and enabling digital services and content.

But biometric authentication is a complex task that will demand access to remote data and computation. The keyless entry system at your office might send a scan of your retina to a remote data center to match against your personnel record before admitting you. Continuous authentication, a technique that uses always-on biometrics — your appearance, gestures, or typing style — will constantly verify your identity, potentially eliminating the need for passwords. Such systems will rely heavily on cloud computing, and will break down when it does.

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