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S.F. Builds Wireless IoT Network: Smart City or Privacy Disaster?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 05, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The latest 'smart device' to make headlines isn't an expensive watch or fancy phone, it's the city of San Francisco. The City by the Bay has entered into a year-long pilot program with the French tech company Sigfox to create a city-wide wireless network dedicated only to the Internet of Things, that ever growing network of web-connected smart devices.

The project puts San Francisco at the forefront of IoT-friendly cities, but has raised predictable concerns about the safety and privacy of user's data.

San Fran's IoT-Only Wireless Network

San Francisco's IoT wireless network will be specifically designed with smart devices in mind. Existing wireless networks, the kind that let you send email from your phone or download documents to your tablet, must handle much higher amounts of data streaming and, thus, eat up more power. SigFox's network is instead specialized for IoT, a low-power, wide area cellular network entirely separate from traditional networks. SigFox's network already covers the whole of France and much of the Netherlands, according to the MIT Technology Review. It's a "slow lane for small, low-power devices."

The network, created by a series of small "base stations" attached to city buildings, will eventually stretch far south of San Francisco, reaching down into Silicon Valley. Consumer devices, from your FitBit to your smart fridge, can connect to the IoT network, but it's designed with more civic-minded purposes in mind. It will mostly be used by government and business devices such as "energy-saving smart street lights and devices that send maintenance alters," according to Sulina Gabale of Reed Smith. If manufacturers want on, they'll need to install a cheap, $2 chip.

The IoT Raises Predictable Privacy, Security Concerns

Along with San Fran's IoT network come the traditional security and privacy concerns. The Internet of Things has long raised questions over the collection and handling of personal data. When your watch tracks your heart beat and your wallet connects directly to the bank, the IoT quickly becomes a stream of personal, private data. A January 2015 report by the FTC highlighted concerns that such data could be vulnerable to serious security risks. (We've lovingly nicknamed the report "news from the department of the blindingly obvious.")

And, of course, there's the risk of hacking. Yes, hackers could steal information from S.F.'s IoT network, but they could also hijack devices themselves. Wired devices are hacakble devices, whether they're computers, cars, or pace makers. In the past few months, we've seen hackers take over G.M. cars and medical infusion pumps. (Not to mention government email systems and non-governmental adultery websites.) Could a smart energy meter mean lights out for S.F. if a hacker breaks in?

These concerns haven't stopped the Internet of Things or the Bay Area, however. The IoT has been growing exponentially and isn't showing signs of slowing down.

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