So much data, so little security -- what happens if your city gets hacked?

Microsoft's Craig Mundie offer security suggestions to MIT Emtech conference; other experts tout smart cities technology

CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Businesses and individuals had better brace themselves for new security realities as society moves away from traditional data sharing equations that have worked well for a couple of decades.

To date, users have agreed to give away certain discrete pieces of information -- such as a name or email addresses -- in exchange for something -- a product or a service, for instance.

That situation is no longer viable, Craig Mundie, senior advisor to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, told told attendees at the Emtech conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) here today.

Mundie said that today, significant amounts of data are collected, much of it without the user's knowledge, and is used in ways not always clear at the time of collection.

For instance, a mobile phone app may ask for permission to use your location data, but it isn't always apparent or disclosed how that data will be used downstream. Your answer to such a request may depend on whether the data will be posted to Facebook or used to guide you via GPS to a meeting. So a straight yes or no answer may not be enough, and you need to be able to control this, Mundie said.

"We're talking about the legal acquisition of data," Mundie said. "We need a usage-based way of controlling it, with a cryptographic wrapper and then policies and laws that govern usage."

He called for a new class of felony for people or organizations that subvert these policies. Without such a change, "the penalty is too low" and people will continue to subvert the laws.

Also, Mundie said, a cryptographic wrapper will be needed for each classification of personal data that is collected that states the rules about where and how it can be shared. Sometimes the individual will control access to the data. In other cases, society may mandate, for example, that some types of health, security or other types of remain available, even anonymized, for the greater good. "This is going to go both ways."

The wrappers would be akin to the digital rights management systems that now protect movie or music ownership, where people or companies hold keys that allow appropriate use of the information.

Such rules won't be static, he said.

"You need to be able to change your mind as an individual and as a society. You can't write the rules in advance, you have to wait until the app emerges and gets to scale, that you can figure out you don't like it," Mundie said.

On a corporate level, the stakes are rising as well, he said.

In the past 12 months there's been a shift away from Mundie called "nuisance" attacks toward "we don't like you and we're going to take you down."

Companies need to decide what assets are of critical value, where their loss would be of such a nature that the company could go out of business. Mundie termed it "life or death. It's a survivability question of what happens if you lose certain things." Today's traditional IT security methods are no longer "adequate," he said.

One Mundie suggestion: Partition the essential information "so it doesn't exist in any one place at the same time."

Unfortunately, Mundie was not available to elaborate.

He left immediately after his presentation to go to New York to receive the Dwight D. Eisenhower award, which honors individuals -- both in public and private life -- who make significant contributions to national security. Past recipients include President Jimmy Carter, Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleeza Rice, and former IBM chairman Thomas Watson, Jr.

Other speakers at the conference today talked about the notion of smart cities, and how that idea could evolve.

Katharine Frase, chief technology officer of IBM's public sector practice, said that the city of Rio de Janeiro has implemented a system designed to predict and proactively plan for the rain storms that can create mud slides and, sometimes, cause human death. There is a 'command center' that brings representatives of all city departments together, but there are also analytics run 36 hours before an impending storm.

The data can predict within "a few centimeters" of accuracy which roads will be flooded so, for instance, ambulances and other emergency responders can be rerouted to safer areas.

She also cited a Dubuque, Iowa, program that engaged citizens to help manage energy and water consumption. The idea was to help the city plan, and to help save money on both the household and city levels.

Some 150 households were in a trial program and reported "tremendous efficiency," Frase said, not only in saving money and resources but also doing things like reporting leaks for the city to fix. Points and other gamification techniques were used to help encourage people to stay involved, she said.

"All cities have more data than they think," Frase said, "but it's often locked into one agency. So if they share, they can make better decisions."

Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT lab that explores how sensors and devices can be used in cities, talked about an experiment that tracked 3,000 pieces of trash that originated in Seattle, Wash. Within two months, much of it - including e-waste - wound up on as far away as the East Coast and Baja, Calif.

"If you move things around more efficiently, you can save money and affect behavioral change," he said.

There's a more practical use of the technology as well.

Ratti recalled a burglary at the MIT campus, the included the theft of the tags that could track where the burglers went. Amid laughter from the audience, Ratti told of how images these devices sent back were photos of the suspect, including one where he wore a T-shirt with the address of his business. "The MIT police took care of the rest," he said.

There are, of course, privacy issues, he acknowledged, that have prompted some countries to begin banning Google Streetview.

Laura Schewel, cofounder of Streetlight Data, which helps collect anonymized location data for businesses and governments, said there is a difference in public reaction when data is collected for a business versus when it is looked at by government agencies, as evidenced by the Snowden affair.

At the end of the day, all the panelists agreed that it's essential for governments and citizens to have a dialogue about the types of information that are needed, and collected, and what happens with that information. "Cities can talk back to us," Ratti said.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon