Today’s smart cities may be underprepared for a range of cybersecurity risks, and must address key vulnerabilities before hackers exploit them.
As cities rapidly deploy connected devices and big data to create “smart” networks, from sophisticated mass transit networks to computerized water supply systems, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks.
That’s because many U.S. “smart” cities are dangerously underprepared for mounting cybersecurity threats. In a 2015 report, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) revealed that U.S. states and territories ranked cybersecurity as their weakest link for the fourth straight year, demonstrating that cybersecurity skills and education will become increasingly important as these cities develop.
Here are five cybersecurity risks that threaten today’s smart cities:
1. Public Transport Networks
Mass transit systems are the arteries that feed major metropolitan areas. Hackers who can shut down or disrupt public transport networks in turn can control the flow of people into and out of a city.
Manipulating train signals to shut down train lines, for example, can block workers from accessing the central business district (CBD) and thus throw the local economy into turmoil.
Leo Taddeo, chief security officer at security software company Cryptzone and former head of the FBI’s cyber and special operations division in New York, says: “If someone wanted to impact the banking center, you wouldn’t have to necessarily hack a bank or affect them. You could turn off the subways, and if the people couldn’t get to work, the bank wouldn’t open.”
Seizing control of road traffic signals can also cause havoc on road networks and prevent people from leaving the CBD, which is particularly dangerous if coordinated with a physical terrorist attack.
We saw how easy hacking mass transit systems can be when a 14-year-old boy infamously hacked into the tram network in Lodz, Poland. He used an infrared transmitter fashioned from an old television remote to derail four trams.
2. Water Supply Systems
A city will quickly wither without a reliable supply of fresh drinking water, and hackers targeting water supply systems can present a major threat to a city.
U.S. researchers discovered just how serious this threat is when they set up a decoy water control system designed to test cybersecurity measures. The system experienced at least 10 attacks from hackers in China, Russia and Germany, who sought to cut off access to drinking water by shutting down water pumps.
Likewise, an Australian man was sentenced to two years in prison after he hacked into a computerized waste management system in a Queensland town and diverted millions of liters of raw sewage into local rivers, parks and onto the grounds of a major hotel.
3. Emergency Services Networks
Blocking access to emergency services networks can throw a city into turmoil and cause mass panic – especially when coordinated with a physical terrorist attack.
The City of Madison fell victim to cyber crime in 2015 when hackers attacked the city’s IT and communications systems.
The hackers used distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to disrupt the city’s online payment systems and interrupt fire and police dispatch services.
In a separate 2016 attack, an Arizona man was arrested after he allegedly disrupted emergency call centers around the country with a DDoS attack sparked by a java script exploit he tweeted.
4. Energy Grids
Hackers highlighted how shutting down an energy grid can completely paralyze a city when a Ukrainian hacker disabled at least 30 of the country’s 135 power substations via a wiper virus in late 2015.
It took technicians approximately six hours to restore power to thousands of people in Kiev and western regions of the country.
5. Data Networks
Hackers recently demonstrated how important it is for smart cities to use information assurance to manage and protect the processing, storage and transmission of public data.
In 2016, an Israeli white-hat hacker hijacked a free citywide Wi-Fi network in Tel Aviv. He demonstrated how hackers could potentially use city-run Wi-Fi networks to spy on unencrypted traffic, seize personal information and redirect users to rogue web servers.
While rapidly advancing technology holds great promise for increasing efficiencies in our cities, it must be accompanied by the latest cybersecurity measures and crisis management planning in order to protect against cyber attacks. Skilled cybersecurity professionals are needed to implement such measures. To find out more about a career in cybersecurity, visit our Careers section.