Amazon Sidewalk’s Meshnets

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Geographical data is one of the Holy Grails of large tech companies; it can be used to understand customer behavior, build people’s profiles, and build smart cities. These companies even use this data to sell targeted advertising. This is hardly a secret. If you wish, you can go to Google History at https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity to find out right now the data that Google has collected from your searches, including the ones made through their voice assistant. You will find that in some of these, your network’s geographical location is included. I have included a couple of screenshots from my own Google History below:

A single log block from my activity using Google Chrome for this blog post.
The result of clicking on the location icon.

Even though one can modify the security settings and even erase these data, security concerns are still being raised, for instance: who has access to these records? How can people be sure that there are no copies of them stored elsewhere? How can the less tech-savvy population manage their data? And, is it even possible to monitor what data is being collected about you across devices and companies?

Introducing the new Amazon Sidewalk mesh network.

Photo by Ömer Faruk Tokluoğlu on Unsplash

Last month, Amazon announced its new wireless protocol called Sidewalk, which is aimed to provide internet over radio waves for devices that use low-power connections such as smart lights, cameras, and other devices. According to Amazon’s Day One Staff, “Customers shouldn’t have to settle for connected devices that lose functionality past the front door, which is why we’re excited to introduce Amazon Sidewalk.” Amazon claims that the range of these devices can be extended with their Sidewalk project by 1.5 miles. So how does Amazon plan to achieve this, and what does this translate to for the end-users?

According to said Carole Theriault, from Smashing Security, Amazon plans to use their new internet routers, (EEROs) for home use to build large interconnected data-transmitting systems called mesh networks or meshnets. “Sidewalk will use this proliferation of EERO devices to build a mesh network, or a wireless network where each device communicates with one another. And the idea is that all the devices will work together to transmit data across networks spanning large, broad geographical areas. So for example according to Amazon’s own announcement, the company found that pacing 700 devices across LA was enough to cover the entire metropolitan area of the city.” You can listen to Carole Theriault’s segment here.

For end-users, Amazon’s meshnets would mean being able to control remote devices with reliable connectivity outside their own wi-fi networks, keep track of their pets using the new Fetch tags, and just extend the internet of things in general beyond what is currently possible. The repercussions of what these data could mean for urban design, planning, and the further integration of technology with city spaces are unforeseeable, especially alongside artificial intelligence. Imagine a city that knows the exact location of every smart divice at all times and can predict the behavior of its inhabitants and even adapt to it.

However, what about all this data? Is it secure? Amazon claims that its Sideway protocol is. There are also privacy concerns regarding access to personal geographical data. The main issue is that it is not possible to know how much the tech companies will be able to find out about individuals once they pair their location data along with other types of data. In other words, a powerful AI system will not only be able to know and predict people’s location at any given time, but it may also be able to accurately predict the reason for it. For instance, based on a person’s search history and internet shopping data, a smart city could tell that you soon will be visiting the hospital and why. Based on this it will also be able to predict which of your relatives and friends will be going to the hospital to visit you and it will suggest to them shopping gifts that other people buy for this type of situation. I could go on, but, dear reader, you get the gist.

Resources

  • If you want to learn more about Amazon Sidewalk, you can visit Amazon’s blog here.
  • For a critical review of Sidewalk, I recommend reading this blog post by CNET.
  • This Wikipedia article is a good introduction to meshnets.
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Recent attacks on (some) smart cities in the US

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

As I was listening this morning to one of my favorite tech shows, ‘Smashing Security‘, I realized I didn’t quite cover an important aspect of ‘smart cities’ in my recent post “Smart Cities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution“. While in my previous post I briefly touch on issues like privacy and the dehumanization of data, I did not explore at the issue of security.

With the large quantity of data generated in (by?) smart cities and all the computer systems put in place to make city life more efficient, also comes vulnerability. Smart cities incorporate technology to solve many urban conundrums such as parking spaces, traffic management, and even affordable housing, but making them secure is a big issue that will need to be solved fast.

On episode 142 of Smashing Security (I know I’m a little behind, but as a graduate student I do my best to keep up), the hosts of the podcast talk about the several ransomware attacks that smart cities around the US have recently been subject to. Twenty-two of these attacks happened in Texas in 2019 only! The attacks cause more than just data breaches; attackers are able to ‘hold a city hostage’ by freezing its cyber-infrastructure and impair people’s access to online services or even to retrieve important online documents like digital birth certificates, among other things.

When I heard this news, I didn’t know that Texas had 22 smart cities, least that they had been attacked. However, Smashing Security’s co-host Carole Theriault said something key about smart cities during the show: how smart is a smart city is a matter of degree. So how much cyber-infrastructure is in place and how much of it can be targeted because of its vulnerabilities is also a matter of degree. The podcast mentions a few more attacks than the ones in Texas and goes on in detail about what the attackers ask for in return and how these cities have dealt in different ways with these problems.

As I hope that this trend of attacks gets stopped soon, one thing I think is clear to me: while we are living in this time where cities are not fully ‘smart’, we need to start integrating cybersecurity best practices into our culture on all levels…

To listen for free to this episode of Smashing Security, you can follow this link, or you can find the show on iTunes, Spotify, Himalaya, or wherever you listen to podcasts. While you are there, remember to check out our own podcast: UCS Podcasts – urbanculturalstudies, by Professor Benjamin Fraser from the University of Arizona.

Resources

  • For a deeper discussion on the infrastructure of smart cities, you can check out this post and the references within episode 142 of Smashing Security.

Smart Cities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

With the introduction of Big Data, supercomputing and artificial intelligence, not only have technology and industry-related fields changed in a major way but indeed many other aspects of how we approach the world as a society. One of these aspects is the conceptualization and creation of cities and urban spaces.

What is a smart city?

The automation and enhancement of urban services and spaces happen when groundbreaking technologies and instantaneous data collection are incorporated in the processes of (re)creation and (re)envision of cities. In this process, the city gets infused with the so-called “intelligent design.” Smart cities are a consequence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

For a discussion about smart cities, you can watch the following Ted Talk by Professor Saskia Sassen, who is a Robert S. Lynd Professor at Columbia.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (check out the book by Professor Klaus Schwab in the links below), also called the Digital Revolution, is a seismic change in all human endeavor. This change is mainly originated in relation to data; how data gets collected, processed, analyzed, and used is bringing an exponential shift in industry, science, art, and it is all converging in urbanization in a mass scale; within thirty years, 68% of the world population is expected to live in urban areas (you can read the UN report here).

Photo by Robin Sommer on Unsplash

According to urban-hub.com, there are three main components of smart cities: “… sensors, networks, and mobile-based engagement. This trio, enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT), forms the backbone of any smart city concept and gives rise to the myriad of initiatives that can boost efficiency and improve lives”. According to the blog, “The technology disrupting urban living today undoubtedly has the potential to improve quality of life”. The blog makes reference to Barcelona and Montreal as two cities that are incorporating Data Science to solve urban challenges.

Similarly, techrepublic.com mentions how “Rapid urbanization is leading to smarter cities that improve the lives of citizens through technology.” To read both blogs you can follow the links below:

Smart cities: good decision-making vital for turning technology into real solutions

Smart cities: A cheat sheet

A Word on Big Data for the Interdisciplinary field of Urban Cultural Studies

More and more geographers, anthropologists, linguists, historians, sociologists, political scientists, and other fields of human and behavioral sciences make use of massive amounts of data to gain new insights into their own field. This has been in part motivated by the large amount of computational power available to researchers, but mainly it has been the data itself that has allowed for this revolution. The four ‘Vs’, or the characteristics of the data in the field of Big Data: volume, variety, velocity, and veracity, are the guiding principles for data collection that are already impacting our very lives.

This is only possible because the field of Big Data has pushed the boundaries of privacy, confidentiality, and ownership of information. With these new ways of collecting data, a caveat must be mentioned: large amounts of data may be de-humanizing in several ways, and the researcher must always keep in mind that behind the sets of numbers and information there are always human beings on the line. Hence, I believe that there are also new opportunities of re-defining research in this new era and humanizing it in a way that it is respectful of the lives of the people behind it and that is useful for the common good.

How will smart cities and the fourth industrial revolution carry on our cultural legacies and mold and shape our very own identities? The answer to these questions will soon be knocking at our door.

Resources

If you are interested in smart cities, consider looking at the following resources: