Securing the smart cities of tomorrow: Cybersecurity challenges and solutions

August 31, 2023  |  Nahla Davies

 The content of this post is solely the responsibility of the author.  AT&T does not adopt or endorse any of the views, positions, or information provided by the author in this article. 

Smart cities are on the rise. What was once squarely placed in the realm of science fiction is now a reality, and the number of smart cities worldwide continues to grow. According to a study by Research and Markets, the market for smart cities is expected to reach over 1 trillion USD by 2027.

Cities that use technology to enhance sustainability and efficiency, streamline resources, and provide layers of interconnectivity gain recognition and remain competitive on a global scale, attracting new citizens while meeting the increased demands and pressures for resource control. 

However, as smart cities continue to develop, it will become even more imperative that official bodies ensure they are adequately protected against cyber threats. As you will learn, smart cities are uniquely positioned to pose a cybersecurity risk and potential targets for bad actors. 

This article will delve into the specific challenges facing smart cities when it comes to cybersecurity. We will then explore concrete, actionable solutions for shoring up the security of smart cities, both those in development and those already up and running today. 

Recent developments in smart city technology

Smart city technology is still rapidly evolving. As we continue to see technological advancements and widespread adoption of relatively new technologies such as the IoT (Internet of Things), AI and automation, and 5G networks, we are primed for the growth of integrated technology within urban infrastructures and systems. 

One of the major trends in e-commerce in recent years has been the adoption of AI for everything from customer service chatbots to data collection and customer preference analysis. Smart cities utilize the same technology to provide enhanced living experiences for urban citizens. 

For example, robots will soon fill in for delivery vans and trucks, using automation to fulfill last-mile deliveries of food, groceries, and pharmacy supplies. App-based solutions, such as smart parking lots, will rely on technology to reduce space management issues in overcrowded urban areas.

E-bikes, e-scooters, self-driving cars, and smart traffic management systems will continue to transform how we get from place to place in a smart city. Property technology, such as remote property management, will allow tenants to adapt more easily to hybrid and work-from-home contexts. 

Other tech innovations, such as automated sensors, AI-enabled data collection points, and responsive data-driven tech gadgets, will be used to assess the sustainability of smart cities, measuring everything from the flow of traffic to the smog and noise pollution levels. Tech solutions are already being implemented in smart cities in development to improve the environmental impact and carbon footprint of the city as a whole. 

Cybersecurity challenges facing smart cities

Due to its multifaceted nature, the smart city faces several particular challenges. With so many different levels and layers to maintain, securing multiple entry points proves difficult, as does ensuring cohesive security and coordinating among various departments. 

Ensuring that there are sufficient and up-to-date cybersecurity measures in place is already a challenge when it comes to specific sectors, such as protecting energy infrastructures. When you add the compounding factors of securing not only distinct sectors of urban government and maintenance but also personal devices and network entry points, digital asset management becomes distinctly more complex. 

As cities adopt new technology networks and infrastructures, they are also automatically creating new opportunities for bad actors to infiltrate the city’s systems. Every time data is produced in a smart city, it must be protected. All too often, smart city technology is added on top of pre-existing cybersecurity infrastructures, meaning that there is insufficient support in place to protect the new technology. 

Take, for example, smart traffic control systems. In a smart traffic control system, there are communications that are transmitted between smart traffic lights and the smart control system itself, with no form of encryption or verification process. Thus, any bad actor could access the system to create false data, leading to accidents, blackouts, and panic in the city. 

Likewise, bad actors could feed false data into unsecured systems so that smart sensors inaccurately identify a disaster, such as an earthquake, flood, mass shooting, or terrorist incident. This can sow panic, confusion, and fear in the urban populace, leaving space for further physical or digital attacks. This type of attack can also have political implications and could be used in an attempt to destabilize the trustworthiness of a particular urban system. 

Other forms of cyberattack that can be expected in the context of the smart city include:

Effective solutions to secure smart cities

To meet the growing demands for smart technology, smart city developers will have to ensure that they are implementing sufficient protective policies, systems, structures, and training to cover all the most vulnerable potential attack sites.

With a multilayered, multifaceted approach that covers cybersecurity from a broad, general perspective as well as at the most detailed level, smart cities are much more likely to be protected from cyberattacks. Let’s look at some specific solutions to help secure smart cities. 

Protect IoT devices

One key facet of a multi-channel smart city cybersecurity system is to secure individual IoT devices. Since each IoT device provides a potential entry point for hackers, providing sufficient protection for individual IoT devices will create a stronger network of interconnected and highly protected devices. This means securing mobile devices and tablets as well as smart city gadgets such as smart meters, streetlights, traffic lights, and waste management systems. 

One key way to secure IoT devices is to provide secure verification options. Each device that communicates with the Internet of Things should include MFA or multi-factor authentication. Users should be asked to provide a valid digital signature when signing contracts, leases, or purchase agreements. Digital signatures are more secure than e-signatures, providing encrypted proof of identity and preventing false access to restricted networks and systems. 

Enact public awareness and education campaigns

Phishing remains one of the most common forms of cyberattacks across all industries. This type of attack targets unsuspecting victims, who are manipulated into providing information or log-in details or completing a task or action on behalf of the bad actor making the request. 

By nurturing a cyber-aware culture through public awareness training programs and education campaigns, urban citizens can become alert to the potential dangers of cybersecurity attacks. Through effective education and advertising, citizens will learn what signs to look out for to identify a potential cyber threat and will be able to determine what steps to take to report and block the attacker. 

For example, through public cybersecurity awareness training, individuals can be shown how to mask the geolocation of their log-ins and devices, securing any interactions synced with the smart city. Training can reveal to individuals how to install and work with a proxy server to mask their digital activity from any potential cyber criminals. 

Deploy AI-powered threat detection

Using the advanced computing and analysis abilities of AI will be essential to protecting smart cities. AI-powered threat detection systems can provide early recognition of possible threats and offer advanced suggestions for defusing the threat. 

Security powered by AI can help to mitigate the level of damage that results from any undetected threats that are successfully carried out. Smart city AI security can address both physical and digital threats, providing a comprehensive protection network that responds to real-time data. 

Final thoughts

As smart cities continue to evolve, there will need to be cooperation among many departments to ensure that the new technology is implemented with high levels of cybersecurity protection. Government bodies will need to work with urban planners, IT specialists, and other tech consultants to ensure that every layer of a smart city is secured. 

By utilizing secure authentication practices, securing devices as well as networks and systems, working with AI to analyze threats and mitigate damage, and providing public awareness training and education, smart cities can stay on top of any cybersecurity threats as they emerge. In this way, smart cities can continue to develop, safely providing enhanced services and experiences to urban citizens. 

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