Five scary reasons why smart cities need smart cybersecurity

smart city cybersecurity
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Smart cities built upon a comprehensive IoT network must ensure they have great cybersecurity. Here are five really bad things that could happen if they don’t.

Ask any big city dweller about their morning commute, and chances are you will hear resigned grumblings about congested highways and overcrowded train platforms. Over the years, we have seen city populations swell as people migrate to urban areas seeking greater opportunities. Rapid urbanization is especially prominent in Asia Pacific, home to some of the world’s largest cities, and has given rise to issues such as pollution, inadequate public infrastructure and congestion.

Today, governments are adopting new technologies, particularly Internet of Things (IoT), to add intelligence and automation to city operations and solve the challenges of urbanization. In our recent Internet of Things: Today and Tomorrow [PDF] report, we found that more than half of smart cities (57%) rely on IoT for building security systems while nearly a third (32%) for smart street lighting.

Yet many of these were developed with security as an afterthought. With recent IoT-specific incidences such as BrickerBot and the Hajime botnet, we cannot help but wonder if IoT is set to become the next frontier for cyberattacks. And if that is the reality, what are the consequences on smart cities that are built upon a comprehensive IoT network? Here is a look at five ways cybersecurity can break a smart city.

Powering out smart grids

Smart grids leverage sensors and automation systems to balance fluctuations in supply, enhance energy efficiency, and optimize system operations. Initiatives, from Manila’s advanced metering infrastructure to Dafeng’s successful smart microgrid project, are adding thousands of IoT devices into the power grid – potentially adding thousands of vulnerable endpoints. While it may seem obvious to point out that a fragile cybersecurity strategy leads to unnecessary blackouts, cities like Kiev still missed that point. The result? The world’s first known successful hack aimed at utilities in 2015, affecting 225,000 Ukrainians.

Derailing intelligent transport systems

Intelligent transportation systems are becoming more common, utilizing IoT and artificial intelligence (AI) to better regulate and ensure smooth traffic. For instance, the intelligent transportation system in Greater Tokyo efficiently manages rail and highway networks, making them world-renowned with near-zero traffic casualty rate. On the flipside, unsecured transportation systems can prove hazardous to citizens. If a Polish teenager can modify a TV remote control to maneuver trams and change track points in 2008, causing four vehicles to derail and injuring 12, what more can sophisticated cyber attackers do on a far-reaching IoT network?

Losing control of surveillance

Despite issues related to privacy concerns, surveillance cameras are here to stay. Already, 42% of cities are using IoT for surveillance, citing faster emergency response and enhanced public safety. In Songdo, South Korea’s first smart city, the surveillance team dispatched help in time to a man seen having a heart attack. Yet the concerns over privacy invasion are not unfounded, with cases on hacked personal surveillance systems cropping up every other week. More significantly, more than 700 webcam feeds in Singapore were supposedly leaked online, displaying the interior of apartments, parking spaces, and even offices. 

Severing tele-health initiatives

Tele-health is rising as an option to help bridge the talent gap in healthcare. Smart motion alerts and monitoring apps are among the many innovations that stemmed as a result. Yinchuan, one of the world’s smartest cities, offers residents a portable device that can take 22 different health measurements – from body temperature to bone density – and communicates it back to healthcare professionals for monitoring. However, this in turn provides hackers with a rich avenue of highly sensitive information they can profit from. Any lapse in cybersecurity here can potentially compromise the health of patients, as seen in the case of Anhui Provincial Women and Child Healthcare Hospital, which saw video leaks of newborn infants.

Polluting smart water systems

Access to clean water is often taken for granted in cities. Today, smart water management is used to help utilities companies track water quality and consumption. Singapore takes it a step further with its plans to adopt next-generation technologies, ranging from image analytics for earth control monitoring at construction sites to a smart water assessment network for real-time water quality monitoring. But because water is a basic necessity, an attack can cripple cities. In 2016, hackers broke into a utilities company’s control system and changed the levels of chemicals used to treat tap water. Despite no noticeable effect, the attack demonstrated just how vulnerable cities are when unprotected in the cyber sphere.

The rise of smart cities is a slow yet eventual one. Before cities mature into intelligent, IoT-driven ones, governments need to have in place a comprehensive IoT cybersecurity strategy that is able to withstand malicious attacks on any front. A levelheaded cybersecurity strategy is critical to ensure secure and smart living for its citizens.

Perhaps then, we can finally realize the dream of a smooth and comfortable morning commute without any worry.

Written by Kenneth Ma, director and general manager of HPE Aruba Hong Kong and Macau

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