Cyber attack: How easy is it to take out a smart city?

How vulnerable is your city? (Image: plainpicture/Cavan Images)

WHEN is a smart city not so smart? With cities worldwide racing to adopt technologies that automate services such as traffic control and street lighting, many aren’t doing enough to protect against cyberattacks.

That’s according to security researchers who have hacked into countless pieces of city infrastructure, from ATMs to power grids, looking for weaknesses.

One such researcher is Cesar Cerrudo of security consultancy IOActive Labs, based in Seattle. Inspired by how hackers switched traffic lights at will in Die Hard 4.0, Cerrudo decided to see if he could do the same to a smart traffic control system in use around the world. He found that the devices didn’t use any encryption or authentication, and he could feed fake data to their sensors from a drone flying overhead.

Cerrudo was so alarmed by his discovery that he joined with others to set up the Securing Smart Cities initiative, which plans to bring together governments, security firms and technology companies.

“The idea is to generate resources so cities can incorporate technology but at the same time make sure that technology is safe and securely implemented,” he says. “What I saw in my research is that most city governments, when they evaluate technology, just focus on functionality.”

How bad could a cyberattack on a city be? Unlike companies, which have a unified leadership and policies, cities are fractured into public and private organisations, making them much harder to defend against cyberattacks.

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