People love to predict the next must-have digital device, from personal drones to augmented-reality contact lenses. But what if the next big device isn’t one single technology? What if it’s a convergence of technologies? How will we then secure our networks and data?

A look at the history of the digital universe shows us that, like the real universe, it is expanding. From a single device’s meeting our needs—starting with the PC, then moving to laptops and phones–we seem poised on the brink of a technological “big bang” resulting in an ever-more-diffuse array of gadgets, monitors, appliances, and communications all working in tandem to enhance our personal and professional lives.

In many respects, this transformation is already occurring, in such products as virtual-reality headsets designed to work in tandem with PCs, drones that snap photos and send them directly to the user’s phone, and cars that track and pick up their owners on commands sent using an app. But the most likely venue for an “explosion” of technologies may be urban areas around the world, via the nascent “smart cities” movement.

Smart = connected

As many as 235 cities worldwide–from Santander, Spain to Singapore to San Francisco–are getting “smart,” aiming for better, faster, and more cost-efficient delivery of services as well as for improving the lives of their citizens. (“Smart City Projects Rumbling to Life Around the World,” readwrite, March 9, 2016) One research firm predicts that global smart city technology revenues will more than double by 2023, to $27.5 billion. (“Smart City Technology Will Reach $27.5 Billion in Annual Revenue by 2023,” Navigant Research, July 7, 2014)

“Smart” urban projects use a variety of technologies, all connected, to enhance services including waste removal, street repair, transportation, utilities delivery, and more. In Santander, Spain, 20,000 sensors connect buildings, infrastructure, transport, networks and utilities as they monitor traffic, pollution, noise, and parking. How might this data be used? In the future, it might enable self-driving cars to park themselves, help drivers avoid streets under construction, or signal office-building windows to close automatically when it rains.

In Glasgow, Scotland, “smart” street lights switch on when pedestrians or bicyclists approach. Helsinki’s “Mobility as a Service” allows travelers to set a destination, then plans their route for them using a variety of options including buses, trains, cabs, bicycles, limousines, and rental cars—payable with a single click. Songdo, a from-the-ground-up smart city south of Seoul, has installed an HD “telepresence” system in 14,000 homes connecting residents with doctors, city departments, retailers, and more. (“Smart cities will be necessary for our survival,”, Jan. 11, 2016)

All these connections can help make us safer, too. When an earthquake and tsunami hit Tokyo in 2011, bullet trains stopped literally in their tracks at the first tremor, and nuclear-power plants entered the first stage of shutdown, warned via computers continuously collecting and analyzing sensor-generated data. (“Smart City Resilience: Learning from Emergency Response and Coordination in Japan,” GMSA Smart Cities and Japan Meteorological Association, January 2013) Sensors, drones, and GPS systems also might work together to help citizens find shelter and locate family members when disaster strikes.

One size fits all?

Governments are not alone in grasping the benefits of converging technologies. Private companies are exploring ways to use augmented reality, such as displaying the names, business types, and customer ratings of storefronts and restaurants as we pass them; designing glucose meters that send diabetes patients’ blood sugar levels and other data to their health-care providers, and more.

None of these services would likely be possible using only one technology. And, in many cases, hand-held devices as delivery systems are proving less than ideal—requiring us to take our eyes off the road to follow our GPS-mapped route, or to fumble for our phone in a handbag or pockets. Likewise, wearables can be perceived as clunky or intrusive.

Recognizing the limitations of a “one size fits all” device, developers are creating digitally-inclusive environments that work together to meet our needs: bathroom mirrors that show us the news or let us browse our emails while we brush our teeth, automobile windshields with GPS displays, clothing that warms up when the temperature goes down, vests that call 911 if we have a heart attack, luggage that tracks itself.

What all these devices have in common: data. To do their jobs, they need to gather, track and analyze data around the clock, including our personal data—where we live, so when a disease outbreak hits, we’ll get the alert; where we are, so we can find services and friends nearby; where we’re going, for an efficient transportation experience. Data is the fuel that powers the connected engine.

Guarding the digital ecosystem

For those of us in the cybersecurity field, securing that data—and the networks that transmit it—poses an enormous challenge. “Baking in” security is well and good, but how does that work when every device has a different manufacturer? How to monitor and protect the vast array of sensors, computers, and connected objects that make up tomorrow’s world? Detecting anomalies in such a broad and diverse system can be like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.

A convergence of devices calls for a security convergence, as well. Rather than relying on a hodgepodge of cybersecurity measures such as malware detectors, anti-virus protectors, and firewalls to guard each individual device, router, sensor or facility, how about taking a big-picture view? Squinting myopically at the trees, we may fail to see the forest.

We need cybersecurity that, like a vast umbrella, shields the entire digital ecosystem.

We are already part-way there. Just as the body’s various systems communicate via the central nervous system, the systems in our pockets, homes, workplaces and cities already communicate with one another around the clock. Our challenge is to make this communicative capacity work for us, rather than against us, creating “smart” cybersecurity systems with all our connected devices working together to detect, resist, and heal breaches automatically—all for one, and one for all.

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