Cybersecurity for smart cities and urban infrastructure

Cyber security theme with the New York City skyline near midtown
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Dec 18, 2023

Meeting the needs of rapid urbanisation is woven into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, with Goal 11 citing the need to ‘make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.’ The UN states that 70% of the global population are expected to live in urban areas by 2050. Of these, 1.1 billion currently live in ‘slums or slum-like conditions in cities’ and 2 billion more are expected to in the next 30 years.

Such widespread urban living brings with it a host of challenges: provision of city services, housing, infrastructure, air pollution, safety and risk management, quality of life, and more. As such, it’s critical that national and local governments – alongside urban planners, public service providers, technology developers, and other key stakeholders – rise to the challenge.

As well as addressing the highly complex needs and requirements of twenty-first century urbanisation, implementing the security solutions needed to protect urban ecosystems will be a major concern. Could smart cities hold the answer? What are the challenges associated with smart technologies?

What are smart cities?

The European Commission defines smart cities as, ‘places where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital solutions for the benefit of inhabitants and businesses.’ Also referred to as intelligent cities, digital cities, and wired cities, they’re inclusive, liveable, and sustainable urban areas that use technology to drive, and enhance, their operations.

Connectivity between citizens, assets and devices and information communication technology (ICT) applications enables smart cities to operate in new, innovative ways – and meet the needs of diverse demographics. For example, smart tech innovations aim to optimise:

  • resource use and allocation
  • emissions
  • key infrastructure – including water supplies, transport networks, food networks, waste disposal, and building design
  • living and working environments
  • knowledge sharing
  • accessibility and equity
  • safety of public spaces
  • cost savings and expenditure
  • city administration
  • communication and interactivity.

The IMD Smart City Index Report 2023 indicates that cities implementing some of the most innovative solutions to urban problems include Zurich, Oslo, Canberra, Copenhagen, Lausanne, London, and Singapore.

What technology is used in smart city infrastructure?

Many of us already live in smart cities, and many of us already use smart tech. Think your Ring doorbell, the Citymapper app installed on your iPhone.

Some of the key technologies powering and optimising smart cities are artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain.

Examples of some of the smart city technologies transforming our everyday lives include:

  • AI-driven traffic lights and traffic signals – that ease congestion and support route-mapping
  • Autonomous connected vehicles – that connect with electric vehicle charging docks and parking meters to direct drivers to nearest availability
  • air pollution monitoring and testing – that supports healthcare efforts and evidences needs for measures such as clean air zones
  • 5G access – that supports connectivity
  • smart energy grids – that personalise energy use at an individual level and make automated adjustments
  • fleet-tracking technology – that supports city planning, supply chain and electrification efforts
  • real-time big data collection – that allows town planners and architects to understand how citizens use urban spaces
  • CCTV cameras and surveillance – that improve public safety and prevent crime
  • citizens’ smartphones – that connect with city services and act as credentials.

Why is cybersecurity important in smart cities?

Despite the transformative benefits of global urban hyperconnectivity and IoT device adoption, there is nevertheless a dark underside: a huge uptick in cyberattacks and cybercrime.

Smart city systems, and the new technologies that power them, have created a greater number of attack surfaces than ever before. Connected spaces are evolving ecosystems where breaches are an inherent risk. As their systems and devices rely on the continuous movement, processing, and storage of highly sensitive data, critical operational technology is often left exposed and vulnerable to hackers.

Cyberthreats present in many forms, including:

  • malware
  • ransomware attacks
  • eavesdropping
  • data breach
  • social engineering attacks
  • denial-of-service (DoS) attacks
  • supply chain attacks
  • insider threats.

These cybersecurity issues could disrupt critical infrastructure systems – such as water supplies, power grids, and transport systems – affect local businesses and local authorities and endanger local citizens. The impacts can vary depending on the nature of the attack, but can result in significant operational, financial, reputational, and safety risks.

How can smart city technologies be protected?

Securing smart cities is a complex affair. Mitigating the risks requires comprehensive cybersecurity practices, greater awareness, regulation and control, and collaboration among smart city developers.

A robust, multi-faceted approach to tackling the cybersecurity risks facing smart cities should include:

  • network segmentation. Critical infrastructure networks should be isolated (segmented) from public networks to control the flow of data and reduce the overall attack surface.
  • secure by design approaches. From smart city infrastructure to IoT devices, secure by design technology ensures cybersecurity is embedded in digital systems and services from the beginning.
  • incident response planning. Have a comprehensive, established incident response plan in place in the event of a cybersecurity breach. This will help to ensure swifter response times, limit damage control, and increase infrastructural sustainability.
  • access control and multi-factor authentication (MFA). Ensure that network, system and resource access is only granted to authorised individuals. Insist on strict authentication methods, monitor access control systems regularly, and implement MFA to add additional layers of security.
  • regulation and compliance. Cybersecurity regulations and compliance requirements should, ideally, be factored into the development and procurement of smart city technologies to establish a baseline of security. For example, insisting on data protection protocols when dealing with sensitive data.
  • penetration testing and security monitoring. Testing for security vulnerabilities on a regular basis helps to identify and address any weaknesses within infrastructure. This includes elements such as routine system audits, threat modelling techniques, penetration testing, and intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS) which spot suspicious activity.
  • training and awareness. Cybersecurity and data privacy awareness initiatives help everyone – from contractors to employees to smart city civilians – to work together to uphold high standards of security. This can be as simple as sharing best practices, such as using strong, unique passwords and not logging onto unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

The public and private sectors must work together to increase the efficacy of smart city digital security. Protecting our urban areas and smart cities is an ongoing, evolving challenge; remaining adaptable, and laying strong, cybersecure foundations, is critical.

Harness the power of cybersecurity to protect against critical infrastructure vulnerabilities

Train as a highly-skilled information security specialist – with expertise across the wider computer science discipline – with the University of Abertay‘s online MSc Computer Science with Cyber Security programme.

You’ll explore offensive and defensive techniques that are integral to cybersecurity, learning about the protection of cities, organisations and individuals from cyberattacks and personal data exploits. As well as addressing security concerns, you’ll gain in-depth knowledge of date science and data analytics, web development, networking, programming, emergent technologies, communication technologies, computer architecture, and more.