HACKING ORNAMENTAL PEARS MYSTIFY RESIDENTS AND EXPERTS

By Geoff Riding

 Illustration by Julia Laskowski

Illustration by Julia Laskowski

A cluster of ornamental pear trees in Brunswick has mystified local residents, council and experts by improbably sabotaging the so- called ‘Internet of Things’. The council had recently installed internet-connected CCTV cameras, high-tech sensors and actuators on council trees as part of their much heralded Smart City Strategy 2017–2027. Council officers were surprised to discover that data collected by newly installed equipment, including sensitive CCTV data, were seemingly accessed and modified by a specific group of ornamental pears. In addition, residents and street traders have reported unusual smells stemming from these same ornamental pears, leading to public calls for the council to remove offending trees.

Further troubling council matters, a large number of native trees have been infectedby phytophthora root rot due to software bugs within its new automated tree management system. The bizarre conjunction of putrid smells, software-induced root rot and unauthorised data access have resulted in council holding an emergency closed- doors meeting with academics, horticulturalists and cyber security experts in an attempt to determine what exactly is going on. In response, residents have barricaded town hall calling for immediate answers as to whether internet- connected ‘Smart Cameras’ attached to these pears were compromised and what steps were being taken to protect their privacy.

Brunswick, along with many other localities, have enthusiastically adopted the‘Smart City’ model by embedding cloud-connected things into the very urban fabric, automating many of the council’s operations, promising increased administrative efficiency at a significant savings to the ratepayer. These sophisticated cameras, sensors and actuators track pedestrians, reduce traffic congestion, automate waste bin collection and ecosystem services. Tech experts and ecologists alike believe such technologies, often termed as the Internet of Things, are a vital component towards building climate change resilience. For example, each individual council tree has been fitted with hi-tech sensors that measure rainfall, wind, humidity and other tree health indicators which are continuously fed to the software cloud— effectively automating the council’s ecosystem operations.

As is expected with early adoptions of emerging technologies, teething problems were experienced however even experts were at loss to explain how a group of ornamental pears had infected the council’s automated ecosystem management system (AEMS) by modifying wateringand fertilisation schedules of neighbouring native trees, leading to significant losses by root rot. Similarly, concerned residents have called on the council to ensure the Internet of Things, includingits Smart Cameras, were secure from cyber warfare. The council has insisted that these ornamental pears were not compromised by outsiders whilst refusing to disclose what caused the damage.

“We have to take these trees off the internet now, council doesn’t seem to have a clue who’s hacking them, it could be Russia or North Korea”, said one worried resident.

Curiously, ornamental pear trees are not supposed to smell this bad. The scent has been described by locals as sweet, shy, pungent smelling and not unlike rotting mackerel sandwiches. The smell has upset many street traderswith many claiming that trade has been severely impacted as customers strayed away from the affected areas. Kerry Dickson, a horticulturalist who answered calls of distress from traders about the smell was also bewildered by the incident.

“It’s actually normal for particular species of pear trees to give off a raunchy scent as they produce a volatile mix of chemicals called amines during fruiting, or reproductive stages, but these ones are supposed to be sterile. I’ve never smelt anything on this scale, they really do smell quite like sex”, said Dickson.

Others have put forth more radical theories. Dr. Ruth Kim, a forest ecologist, suggested that it was possible that these ornamental pears themselves may have somehow interfered with Internet of Things devices to enhance their own chances of survival. The Internet of Pears? Currently, ornamental pears consist of only 4 per cent of council’s overalltree mix and declining as part of a broader shift towards native vegetation.

“The truth is that there is much that we do not know about how these trees interact with biotic and abiotic elements within the ecosystem. Recent research have demonstrated that trees do, infact, communicate with each other through their own version of the internet, an intricate network of fungi called mycorrhizal networks”, Dr. Kim said.

In reality, as Brunswick becomes increasingly embedded with unknown bugs, there is a profound need to have an open and critical discussion about its safety and privacy. As preeminent technology consultant, Anthony M. Townsend cautions, “The only questions will be when smart cities fail, and how much damage they cause when they crash.” If an ornamental collection of brittle, buggy, hacking pears destroyed the community’s trust, millions of dollars of lost trade and native vegetation, what about hacking self-driving-cars?