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Smart cities: the next frontier for cybercriminals

Securing a city’s infrastructure means locking down every node and endpoint, writes Alan Grau, VP of IoT/Embedded Solutions, Sectigo.


Imagine the extent of damage that cybercriminals could cause within an entirely connected city. In technical terms, the damage could range anywhere from Permanent Denial-of-Service (PDoS) attacks, or device hijacking and identity theft, to disrupting critical services including building access, first responder networks or sewage treatment facilities. In human terms, damage could severely infringe human rights, such as the right to privacy, and in extreme cases, result in mass fatalities.


The benefits of a connected city are many, yet its foundation as a series of connected devices also presents its biggest vulnerability. One exploited sensor can provide an ingress point for attackers, effectively rendering the whole system insecure. If a single device lacks adequate security or its digital certificate has expired, the whole structure can become vulnerable to attack or suffer outages, impacting critical services.

One exploited sensor can provide an ingress point for attackers

Without the correct cybersecurity measures in place, smart cities are left wide open to malicious intrusions and criminal activity. In 2014 for example, researchers were able to hack into nearly 100 wirelessly networked traffic lights in Michigan. In this instance, with the use of default usernames and passwords that could be found online, researchers infiltrated the network with relative ease. If malicious actors were to replicate this, there is the very real possibility of loss of life. More recently, in 2018, the city of Atlanta was devastated by a ransomware attack that targeted critical municipal systems, leaving at least a third of the 400 or so software solutions that the municipal office runs partially or completely inoperable.

The challenge of securing the infrastructure requires each and every node and endpoint across the network to be secure—no small feat. As a result, system operators need to have a holistic view of the entire smart city network and to be able to verify and trust each endpoint, ensuring that they are legitimate and have not been tampered with at any stage. This requires building robust security capabilities into each device and implementing an automated certificate management system, which will guarantee each certificate is always up to date, preventing (potentially dangerous) outages or downtime.


Such standards are critical, not only for interoperability and to ensure proper operation of all elements in the network, but also to safeguard the security of the system. The standards must define not only how devices will communicate, but also how this communication will be secured, how devices will be identified as legitimate, and how the integrity of the data produced by these devices will be protected.


The Three-Step Solution


The issues of privacy and security can be addressed through three steps. The first is to secure the network and enterprise-level infrastructure systems. This ensures only approved people and commands can access these devices, blocking external malicious actors from accessing the network. By using the latest network security appliances and certificate-based authentication for all systems, attacks on network infrastructure can be stopped at the gate.

Second, properly securing the various connected devices that form the structure of a smart city network, such as building control systems, traffic management systems etc, is central to addressing the issues of privacy and security for a smart city. Each device must have security built in to avoid becoming an easy target for hackers. IoT devices, which are increasingly targeted by cybercriminals, require specialised embedded security solutions, secured from the point of manufacture, and then updated throughout the device lifecycle to counter changing threats.

Each device must have security built in to avoid becoming an easy target for hackers

Third, when it comes down to privacy and security it is essential that systems architects continue to focus on traditional IT systems that keep municipal data, employees, websites, and services operational. A forward-thinking smart city will monitor and protect the perimeter, whilst having visibility into the internal systems that may come under attack.


Safer Smart Cities


Security and privacy incidents within smart cities will become more frequent unless manufacturers of smart devices and connected infrastructure used across municipalities adopt more suitable security policies, procedures, and protocols. Smart cities that neglect certificates and device authentication will not remain smart for long, as cybercriminals time and time again will be able to access these devices and write malicious code to severely disrupt operations and threaten life and property.

It is paramount that planners and systems architects understand this. The operational benefits of a connected city are only achievable if, first and foremost, every endpoint is secure. It is crucial that there are methods by which security measures can be constantly monitored. Having certificates in place for connected device authentication is one step; actively monitoring and managing certificate lifecycles is another—and one that will greatly bolster any attempts to create a reliable and secure smart city.


As our world becomes more sophisticated and our cities, our utilities, our buildings, and our cars become home to increasingly complex computer and data networks, their vulnerability to bad actors and cyberattacks continues to grow. Bad actors understand this, and they also understand how much they can disrupt our daily lives by breaching these interwoven systems. Unless municipalities understand how important it is that they protect their smart infrastructures, smart cities will never truly live up to their potential, and will instead become the next frontier for cybercriminals.

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