The Dangers in Smart Cities

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Smart cities make for a larger attack footprint, and more potentially devastating results from a breach or hack.

In my previous NextGov column, I talked about the progress that various municipalities were making in terms of their smart city initiatives, with programs for everything from reducing crime to helping residents find a place to park. It’s clear the quality of life for both residents and visitors rises that as our cities and towns get “smarter.” That’s probably why many of these programs, while administered by state and local officials, are funded by the federal government. In some cases, a federal agency might be a full partner in an initiative.

Smart cities are a pretty cool concept. We may never get to the kind of utopian future predicted by blockbuster sci-fi movies, but eventually, those quality-of-life improvements being developed today will add up to a better life for a lot of people.

But there is a dark side as well. Basically, as our cities get more intelligent, they also get more interconnected, with various systems depending on one another, or at least sharing the same system resources. That makes for a larger attack footprint, and more potentially devastating results from a breach or hack.

Because the concept of smart cities is new, with actual implementations still pretty rare, there has not been a lot of smart city hacking incidents. A couple of years ago someone hacked into the tornado siren network in Dallas, which was in the process of automating those warnings. The hacker sounded the alarm, panicking some residents, but there was no permanent damage. 

Even though smart city hacks are rare, the seeds for that possibility have apparently been planted. Experts recently told Wired magazine that many of the smart city systems they examined contained similar vulnerabilities as most mainstream computer networks. This included things like guessable passwords, weak or missing encryption and unpatched assets with well-known vulnerabilities.

Given the fact that many smart city projects include millions of internet of things sensors, which have always had problems with security, it’s no wonder that experts are worried about what could go wrong once more programs come online. It’s not just about a bigger attack surface. It’s also about what those smart city programs could do if compromised, and what systems are connected or linked to their infrastructure.

Hackers have already started targeting state and local government institutions with massive cyber attacks. The most notable type of attack so far has been ransomware, which makes sense given that hackers probably figure that states have millions of dollars at their command, yet also weaker security than say the federal government or a large corporation. Just last month, a massive ransomware attack hit 23 Texas cities in the spate of a few days, with the attackers demanding millions in ransom to unlock the state’s systems.

Texas is not the only state that fell victim to recent attacks. Atlanta was hit by a very high-profile attack last year that shut down much of the city’s network infrastructure, blocking access to essential services for several days and hindering operations for weeks while the attack was cleaned up at a cost of about $17 million. Farther up the East Coast, the city of Baltimore was recently hit, with hackers demanding a relatively modest $76,000 ransom. Baltimore didn’t pay but later spent over $18 million on remediation and cleanup.

The list of city and state victims goes deep and keeps growing. They include entire cities like Key Biscayne, Florida, individual entities like the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, and agencies within a state government like the Georgia courts system.

For the most part, cities aren’t paying the ransoms. The U.S. Conference of Mayors recently voted unanimously to refuse to pay any ransom to hackers. Mayor Gary Heinrich of Keene, Texas, one of the 23 cities hit in the latest attack, went so far as to tell NPR that the hackers were “stupid people” for expecting Keene or any other Texas city to pay their ransom.

Standing up and not paying is clearly the right call, unless American cities want to get permanently marked as easy targets. This is especially true right now because we are just talking about ransomware attacks that lock city data behind encryption. Not being able to search tax records for a few days isn’t too much of an inconvenience, and if cities have decent backup and disaster recovery programs, everything can get restored relatively quickly. 

But what if we had more smart city programs running right now? Could cities afford to be as bold if hackers compromised, say, a city’s smart traffic grid and started triggering serious or fatal accidents until their bounty was paid? What if they shut off the water and power, or sent out bogus emergency alerts to panic residents? Suddenly, that stiff resistance might get shakier.

Looked at through the lens of possible attack scenarios, the previously mentioned report that found typical computer network vulnerabilities within smart city projects suddenly becomes more disturbing. If attackers are clearly able to successfully attack state computers now, then having the same security shortcomings in smart city applications means that they will be vulnerable too. Only instead of storing government data, many of those systems are designed to reach out and touch or help citizens in some way. Having a hacker control that interaction is scary and dangerous.

I’m not in any way trying to discourage smart city projects. I’m a huge fan and think that some of them could really improve the quality of life for residents and visitors to cities that implement various smart initiatives. But we have to be aware of the potential dangers too. Smart city projects need to be held to a higher cybersecurity standard than the average computer network, and that isn’t happening. It’s far better to implement advanced security like identity management or zero-trust networking to smart city programs now than to have to worry about how hackers can hurt us, sometimes literally, in the near future as cites strive to add more intelligent programs to their infrastructure.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys