As the smart cities mission gathers momentum in India, one cannot but help imagine that these cities will turn into growth engines for the Indian economy in the near future. A whole new eco-system is coming together to facilitate the evolution of these projects and the country’s technology prowess is also getting a boost thanks to the unique needs that these projects are placing in terms of hardware, software and technology strategies.
One area where we have more work to do is the domain of smart city cyber security. As smart city projects take off and grow in scale, the security challenges will also rise proportionately and so should the strategies and tactics deployed to deal with them.
When one looks at the entities connected with a smart city, the challenge becomes clear. From smart energy to smart infrastructure, the network of people, devices, access points and interfaces creates vulnerabilities that criminals or actors will mal intend can exploit. The web of information flow created by each of these creates complexities that
Any chink in the armor which could be something as downstream as smart street light in a manner of speaking can lead to the whole chain of data getting infected. The infection could spread upstream going back into the command and control facility and spread to other smart city aspects and threaten the viability of an entire city.
When it comes to cyberattacks on smart cities, the attacks can be subdivided into man-in-the-middle, data and identity theft, device high jacking, Denial of Service and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS). In all these cases, the hacker or hacker groups might target data, disruption or attacks on third-parties. During a Denial-of- Service attack (DoS attack), a machine or a network resource may be rendered unavailable by flooding it with fake requests that prevent legitimate requests from being attended to. In case of a DDoS, multiple smart city entities may be used to attack a single or multiple sources outside the network to overwhelm the system. Smart cities could either be the targets of such activity or their infrastructure could be used to launch these attacks on other entities.
Smart parking meters, lighting, traffic signals and other connected end points could also fall prey to Permanent denial- of-service attacks (PDoS), an attack that damages the device so badly that it requires replacement or reinstallation of hardware.
Connected vehicles that interface and engage various aspects of the smart city eco-system could also serve as an entry point for vectors. A connected vehicle that got infected with a vector that came onboard through another city or network could carry that vector and infect another city or network it comes in contact with. A single connected vehicle or a set of vehicles could be virtually highjacked to cause chaos on the roads. In instances where such vehicles interact with intelligent traffic systems, they could be used to mount a DDoS attack on the city or such systems.
During a natural disaster or any other emergency, such vehicles could be turned unusable by hackers thereby increasing the response time. The easiest way to control mass behavior is by controlling mass or individual transport systems which is why connected vehicles are always on the radar of hackers and other groups.
Malicious actors could work to cause large scale disruption including power outage, grid shutdown, even disrupt emergency services or law enforcement communications.
Every attack on a smart city could lead to loss of capital, revenue potential, legal liabilities or even deaths. If the hacker takes down a traffic management system during peak hour, the disruption could result in loss of manhours and unnecessary fuel consumption both of which have an implication for the economy of the city and the country. A medium sized breach affecting nearly 100000 devices could cost upwards of USD 1 million to fix and this is just a conservative estimate.
While loss of revenue and investment opportunities may be compensated, in the short term through capital infusion, the loss of credibility cannot be fixed that easily.
Protecting smart cities
A multi-pronged approach is needed to secure endpoints, the underlying network infrastructure and the cloud architecture safe. By deploying multiple layers of security through multiple detection and remedial methods, threats from every endpoint could be contained before the network is harmed. Cities can also boost their threat intelligence by installing sensors that constantly monitor the threat environment and automatically respond to those threats across the whole network.
The command and control facility needs to be secured by deploying systems that can monitoring inbound and outbound data traffic and flag any anomaly. A security operations center should also be deployed to constantly monitor the functioning of the smart city at all levels of data flow. Small but essential steps such as firmware updates need to be done on a regular basis. And finally, through secure decommissioning of devices, smart city security professionals should prevent the repurposing of devices to launch in-bound or outbound attack by logging on to the network.
When it comes to protecting a smart city, a series of small steps done in a coordinated manner with complete attention and involvement of stakeholders at all levels can go a long way in preventing attacks and disruption. Smart cities are undoubtedly the growth engines of the future and deserve security attention and planning of the highest order.