Smart cities have a soft spot: cybersecurity

By Jessica Klein

Cities around the U.S. are getting smarter. But they could be getting dumber (sorry) in the face of cyberattacks.

From Houston to St. Louis, more cities have begun to test out and implement “smart city” technology. September 6 in Houston marked the activation of its partnership with the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator program, in which tech giants like Microsoft will work with local companies to build out Internet of Things infrastructure across the city. Over in Wisconsin, Foxconn Technology Group launched year two if its “Smart Cities-Smart Futures” competition, which grants up to $1 million and “technical support” to those working on smart city technology across the state’s universities. And companies that provide smart city technology are getting millions in funding.

Montgomery, Alabama has apparently been “smart” for months, with an app that helps with downtown parking and garbage trucks that detect potholes. A recent workshop, including city, industry, and military leaders, focused on how to “fine tune” these smart city initiatives. Montgomery’s city services director, Chris Conway, says he wants residents feedback on the smart updates, too: “We can’t solve a problem that we don’t know about.”

What are those potential problems? From a security standpoint, there’s no shortage. As John Breeden II, a longtime technology journalist and CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, recently put it, “As our cities get more intelligent, they also get more interconnected…That makes for a larger attack footprint, and more potentially devastating results from a breach.” Indeed, researchers from Threatcare and IBM Security who took a look at major smart city provider hubs over the summer found easy-to-guess passwords, ways to avoid authentication tests, and vulnerabilities to malicious hacking attempts.

Though these hubs say they’ve solved some bugs, IBM researcher Daniel Crowley is concerned. “When [these hubs] fail, it could cause damage to life and livelihood,” he says, “and when we’re not putting the proper security and privacy measures in place bad things can happen, especially with motivated and resourced attackers.” He fears that malfunctioning smart cities could lead to mishaps like the hack leading to Dallas’s blaring emergency sirens in 2017. When notification systems fail once, it’s like the boy who cried wolf. Residents will be less likely to take them seriously afterwards. Plus, false emergency alerts could cause undue panic, leading to issues with crowd control in public spaces.

Across the ocean, cybersecurity experts in Denmark fear how malicious hackers could affect Copenhagen, where the EnergyLab smart project connects electricity and heat with energy-efficient buildings and transport. There, hackers could attack by turning off the heat in people’s apartments—a seemingly minor inconvenience that could become dangerous when harnessed strategically.

Back in the U.S., a $7.5 billion sustainable “mini-city” project called Bleutech Park in Las Vegas is working with security firm Patriot One to use AI-powered robots for smart city protection. St. Louis is also using smart city technology to increase safety. Working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, St. Louis has been testing sensors that can alert emergency responders to fires, floods, and other threats. “Worst case scenario,” says the city’s chief technology officer, Robert Gaskill-Clemons, “the technology’s not ready, or it doesn’t pan out.”

Photo by Mark Harrison on Unsplash

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