Delivering security and continuity for the cities of tomorrow

It’s seems like almost every part of our lives is now being supported by emerging technologies, from predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to the Internet of Things (IoT). First, we had smart phones, then smart watches and now smart cities.

Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in towns and cities, and by 2050 this number could rise to 66 per cent. This is resulting in a growing need for solutions to effectively manage city infrastructure and cope with the rising population, all while keeping up with modernisation.

There are vast amounts of benefits when it comes to smart cities, such as wireless connectivity for utilities and intelligent transport systems. Through IoT, smart cities provide effective and innovative solutions to the growing number of challenges facing communities today. For example, sensor-enabled traffic lights can alert city maintenance workers about a burnt-out light bulb, ensuring public safety as well as saving valuable time and money.

Security vulnerabilities and risks to smart cities

It is clear that the future benefits of IoT-enabled cities are enormous. However, these benefits come with a significant array of challenges and risks, one being security. Though city administrators undoubtedly attempt to prevent attacks, we would be naive to ignore the possibility of something falling through the cracks. History has shown us that security measures that have even the smallest of vulnerabilities will be quickly identified and exploited by criminals and smart cities are no different.

As smart city technologies rely on digital networks, cyber criminals can take advantage of a number of vulnerabilities from a distance. The growth of IoT has been rapid, yet it has not been matched with adequate protection.

Due to inadequate software security, many smart city systems have been constructed with minimal end-to-end security, as many of the devices used assumed a safer environment with a smaller user community in mind. Cities and local councils are also under increasing pressure to make savings, so it’s no surprise that the use of legacy systems which have not been upgraded for several years is commonplace, leaving cities wide open to cyber threats.

A cyber-attack or extreme weather conditions, such a storm or heavy rain, potentially resulting in millions of residents being left with no electricity supply, are therefore very real threats to smart cities. And, in these hyper-connected environments, an outage can have cascading effects. For example, if an electricity grid is affected, power could be cut to homes, workplaces and various essential infrastructures, leaving thousands, if not millions, without power or heat for hours and even days. This is similar to the 2015 BlackEnergy cyber-attack in Ukraine where hackers accessed a power plant system, causing a power outage and leaving a whole city of 230,000 citizens without electricity for light or heating.

The preventative approach to smart city continuity

In the past, the standard approach to attacks or outages was addressed through the recovery process, however this is no longer enough to keep us safe.

Without taking a preventative approach, smart cities are at risk as even the latest and most resilient technology is unable to completely eliminate security risks and vulnerabilities. So, how can we address these risks to ensure continuity when things do inevitably go wrong?

As cities adopt smart technologies, making data security a priority is crucial. We are witnessing the increasing adoption of smart devices within homes, providing a wealth of new potential data streams that could inform smart city services – as long as they are secured. For example, live video feeds from smart home security cameras could be used to help inform city police services. This raises the issue of security and continuity at a network level, as it opens up possibilities for cyber attackers to hack into households. Security features on smart devices are essentially non-existent – potentially leaving a city vulnerable, along with a family’s online privacy.

With the introduction of cloud technology, smart city continuity can now be ensured. Smart city systems can be backed up and restored at lightning speed. Enabling cloud also provides an “air gap” in critical systems, which can be forcibly shut down when systems are hacked or at risk. This leaves time to resolve vulnerability issues, prevent further damage and get things back up and running – allowing cities to not only avoid massive outages, but to also recover from them.

As smart cities move from concept to reality, securing their foundation will ensure the safety of the digitally connected communities of the future. Decision makers cannot afford to put the public at risk by not implementing the right processes to support the infrastructure. While deploying security solutions to prevent things from going wrong will help, using continuity as a framework for building resiliency is the way forward for smart cities. There is no substitute for being prepared but investing in the right solutions to get cities back up and running, with immediate access to heating, power or electricity is non-negotiable.

High quality investment in cloud backup and disaster recovery ahead of time is imperative. Taking a proactive, rather than reactive, approach will ensure that systems are protected and are resilient in the face of foreseeable or unforeseeable attacks and outages.