The “smart city” phenomenon may sometimes be confused with a digital utopia: a city where data is leveraged to eliminate all injustices, dangers, and first-world problems. This idea is massively flawed, and there are numerous problems that are associated with smart cities. What’s more, majority of these problems are not well known or have not be pointed out yet.
Media coverage by the leading media outlets as well as other publications have exhibited high levels of optimism as far as smart cities are concerned. Fewer disease outbreaks and fires, renewable and sustainable energy for everyone, no more traffic, and billions of savings, are some of the major outcomes envisioned.
Well, majority of these outcomes are actually possible. Nevertheless, it’s essential not to get overly excited. Instead, we should carefully examine the root causes of the harmful effects of smart cities, especially by looking at the components of a smart city and how they might contribute to these problems.
In doing so we have got to admit that the fast pace at which we are adopting networked technologies is creating the potential for plentiful vulnerabilities. We already have a tremendous amount of smart home devices in our homes, including smart alarms, lighting, thermostats, locks, televisions, and baby monitors. According to various predictions, we will have over 21 billion connected devices in the world by 2020.
Vulnerability to Hacking
To properly function, smart cities rely heavily on large amounts of accurate data. As such, hacking would have detrimental effects, and would most probably bring the whole city to a standstill. For example, traffic control systems could be taken over by hackers to bring about crashes and jams. Other risks include contamination of water supplies and crippling of subways.
These occurrences may sound far-fetched, but they are not. For instance, in 2011, hackers took over Ohio’s water control system and damaged a pump used to service about 2,200 customers.
Moreover, hacking entry points can be an easy way to jump-start these problems. For instance, vending machines and smart light bulbs located on a college campus were once used as an entry point for launching a cyberattack against a certain university in the U.S.
One of the most straightforward ways hackers use when targeting smart cities is to target the people themselves. Targeting citizens of smart cities gives easy access to the “weakest link”, and can potentially bring to light vulnerabilities like lack of encryption and authentication, as well as poor password storage. The result is vulnerability of systems to hackers.
The fact that we now have a tremendous amount of smart devices that we interact with on a daily basis means the prevention of high volumes of attacks against smart cities will present a major challenge. According to a 2017 report by Cisco Cybersecurity, 35 percent of security operations professionals and chief information security officers admitted they witness thousands of cyber threats every day, though only 44 percent of them are investigated.
The concept of the smart city is largely based on the acquisition of large amounts of data. This data encompasses almost every detail there is to know about the citizens of the smart city. This data is often used to enhance efficiency, offer better services, and help in the achievement of several smart-city goals. Nevertheless, the bulk of this data, which also contains personal information about citizens, can reveal a lot of private information to those who are not authorized to access it, especially in the event of unauthorized access.
Once private information is accessed by unauthorized individuals, it can be used to undertake all sorts of malice. For instance, it can be used to coerce the affected citizens to act according to the hacker’s demands (a good example is ransomware), it can be sold to other third parties with ill intentions, or used as entry points to cause attacks to major systems.
It’s, therefore, crucial that extremely efficient security practices be incorporated into a smart city’s infrastructure for data collection and processing. Securing the colossus amount of data that IoT devices can capture, for instance, is highly important.
High Cost of Living
The development of smart city infrastructure as well as running of its operations calls for massive investment. More often than not, this investment has got to be covered by the citizens themselves. Usually, these costs are in the form of taxes, which bring about additional burdens to the citizens who are often already struggling to make ends meet.
What’s worse, if the collected funds are misappropriated, — usually in the hands of corrupt leaders and politicians — there’s even more burden on the citizens to cater for the loss. The result is a city — or entire generation — buried in huge debts, and struggling to survive.
The Challenge of Digital Illiteracy
The idea of introducing smart cities in developing countries, where majority of the citizens are still digitally illiterate, is increasingly being put forward. The problem with this move, however, is that forcing digital services down the throats of the digitally illiterate without providing them with suitable training presents a lot of challenges. For instance, there is increased vulnerability to self and system damage. This particular challenge has got to be addressed with the high levels of priority it deserves, otherwise there would be dire consequences.
Replacement of Battery and Charging Issues
A smart city infrastructure comprises of a significant number of sensors as well as other IoT devices positions in different places. Most of these sensors and devices depend on batteries to run.
Even though the infrastructure is designed such that it would take a long time before there is need for replacement or recharging of these batteries, whenever replacement is really necessary, the affair would be extremely tedious and costly.
Being in an environment of open disclosures within the software industry means it’s necessary to always actively learn from all our mistakes, to observe methods hackers are using to attempt to breach our systems, and to stay ahead of our game and miles ahead of the latest intentions of hackers. Identification of vulnerabilities should always be taken as an opportunity to improve our systems for the better.
A good place to start, however, is to ensure you only purchase equipment from reputable and reliable suppliers who are keen on securing your data, and have an interest and knowledge in cybersecurity.