As cities grow smarter, what are the cybersecurity implications?

31, March, 2020


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It is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2050. While this appears to be a promising scenario, ageing population and rapid urbanisation will cause more strain on transportation, healthcare, energy and infrastructure resources. To address these problems, cities across the world will have to adopt advanced technologies and become smarter.

Smart cities are urban areas that use a combination of advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence, big data, IoT and robotics, to transform how humans interact and live in urban areas. These advanced technologies gather data and insights to effectively manage resources, assets and services. The data is collected from various IoT devices, citizens and assets with an aim to efficiently manage and monitor traffic and transportation systems, water supply networks, information systems and crime detection, among others.

Some of the solutions that are usually incorporated to make a city smart include smart streetlights, smart traffic light systems, smart parking, smart energy meters and appliances.

However, the growing digitalisation of cities can be a double-edged sword. While the use of smart connectivity solutions can improve the quality of life, these solutions remain vulnerable, unsecure and open to cyber-attacks.

Are smart cities cyber-secured?

The global smart city market size is predicted to reach $463.9 billion by 2027, according to a new report by Grand View Research. With this prediction in mind, just think about the chaos a cyberattack on an interconnected smart city can cause. For instance, imagine all of a city’s traffic signals getting set to green.

While smart cities are designed to boost efficiency and productivity, neglecting cybersecurity can potentially present serious risks for authorities and citizens. For example, in March 2018, the US city of Atlanta suffered from a ruthless ransomware attack called SamSam on its ‘mission critical’ software applications. The attack potentially affected up to six million people and forced the city to shut down its government computers for many days.

In June 2018, it was anticipated that about a third of the software applications utilised by the city were partially disabled or remained offline in the aftermath of the ransomware attack. The hackers had demanded a $51,000 ransom, which the city refused to pay. However, Atlanta government officials later estimated that they would require about $9.5 million to recover from the SamSam attack.

What can be done to avoid cyberattacks?

To avoid such attacks, smart city leaders will have to adopt a cyber-resilient mindset, which is focused on having disaster and contingency plans in place to tackle any kind of cyberattack. Therefore, cybersecurity should be a top priority for cities looking to become smart.

Since smart cities depend on a network of interconnected systems, devices and users, cybersecurity measures should address vulnerabilities across a range of industries, including telemedicine, transit, surveillance, energy and utilities, e-government and manufacturing.

Therefore, before moving ahead with large projects for smart cities, authorities should prepare the answers to various questions. How do we deal with a cyber-attack? Are our officials well-trained and well-equipped to handle such situations? How do we prepare the city administration to handle any emergency?

They should also synchronise smart city measures with a robust cybersecure strategy, partner with security companies to grow cyber capabilities and formalise data and cyber governance.

With these measures in place, smart cities will be well-equipped to address the potential of cyber risks.