Defending Downtown! What Are Smart Cities & What Are The Cyber Ramifications

Smart. Smart has always been a term used to describe an intelligent person. In recent years, the word has evolved to be commonly used to describe elements of our lives that were once simple and now have been injected with technology which has made them go from dumb to smart. Smart phones were some of the first items we gave this term to and it has continued to be attributed to things that are connected to the Internet and assist us in our daily lives. While smart is in fact typically a term used to describe things, it’s evolved even more to describe networks and entities even — what am I talking about? Smart cities.

The topic of smart cities is one of the most difficult for experts to agree on its definition. Some define it as a city that uses different types of IoT sensors to collect data, which it then uses to gain insights about the management of that city in a variety of ways. Others define it as a framework composed primarily of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) which is used to develop, deploy, and promote sustainable development practices to address growing urbanization challenges — this definition emphasizes the long-term renewable and socioeconomic impacts that can be seen from the use of smart city technology. Others still will classify a smart city as a city which uses ICT to increase efficiency, act as an information sharing platform, and will work to improve quality of life for governments and citizens. While the precise definition can be hard to pin down, nearly all definitions include the fact that those cities which fall under the “smart cities” banner utilize technology in an attempt to provide some sort of change to the city’s citizens — be they operational improvements, environmental enhancements, or socioeconomic strategies, the goal behind a smart city is to change that city (in an undefined way) ideally for the better.

In order for a city government to be able to achieve their goals for citizens they need to consider a few things. As mentioned in the various definitions, IoT or ICT technology is needed in order to make a city techy enough to make it smart. The reason it almost makes sense that these technology terms are used interchangeably is because both of these areas involve technology which communicates effectively and often with each other. Devices which fall under IoT or ICT communicate information that would be relevant to many different city needs — IoT cameras could communicate crime or help locate missing people, connected traffic lights use sensors to monitor intersections and could communicate with smart cars (not the brand of tiny cars) to help reduce traffic accidents. These devices work for smart cities because they have monitoring sensors or cameras which can communicate key data to city governments and citizens.

For all of these devices to work, a city can only be smart if it has plenty of strong network connections which can handle high amounts of volume from the expected involvement. Some communities have plans for their smart city to not only involve the local government, but other areas as well including environmental, safety, transportation, utilities, and building infrastructure.

Where there are networks, there are network vulnerabilities. Protecting these networks will prove to be the chief challenge when it comes to protecting smart cities. When we look at the aspects of a functioning community that some smart cities are trying to incorporate, such as utilities, there are real threats to people’s lives that come from vulnerable networks. In January of this year, a hacker was able to temporarily alter chemical concentrations in a local water supply system. In addition to the tampering with of community resources like water, this poses a real threat to citizens and their personal, private data which is provided to their trusted utility companies.

While smart cities could potentially be the solution to a myriad of issues facing a city in the day-to-day operations, cybersecurity risks must be considered by local officials when implementing such technology in the local communities.

Image by Macrovector for Freepik.