Cyber Attacks on Smart Cities: Why we Need to be Prepared

Smart Cities are increasingly facing threats to the strives they have made in technological advancement via increasing cyber-attacks. So far in 2018, Atlanta, Baltimore, and the island of Sint Maarten, were subjected to wide-scale online attacks, affecting vital government services and costing these municipalities millions in damages. So, what does this mean for the future of our Smart Cities, powered by digital technology?

Cyber-Attacks on Smart Cities are an Unfortunate Trend in 2018. What can we do to be better prepared?

Services Held at Ransom

Earlier this year in March, Atlanta, the capital of the state of Georgia in the US,  was crippled by SamSam, a ruthless ransomware bug that lasted nearly two weeks and affected 30% of mission-critical software applications. A ransom of $55,000 worth of Bitcoin was demanded but the city declined to pay it.

Months later, Atlanta is still reeling from the aftermath of the sustained malware (malicious software) attack with police and legislative evidence among the worst hit. City officials reported that a decade’s worth of legal documents and years of police dashboard camera evidence have been wiped from their computers, leading to far-reaching consequences for law and order. The cost of this attack so far? $12.2 million.

Baltimore, another bustling smart city in the US was targeted in the same month with a ransomware attack, but this time aimed at emergency services. Responders were unable to access their Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system for 17 hours. The city’s emergency services rely on CAD to automatically divert calls to emergency responders who are closest location-wise so that emergency assistance is directed as efficiently as possible. While the system was down responders operated by taking phone calls manually, a far slower process and one which could have had a more sinister outcome if the cyber-attack had been extended.

Sint Maarten, a Caribbean island and constituent country of the Netherlands also suffered a similar fate in April, when it experienced its third cyber-attack this year. All government services were offline for a week as authorities struggled to regain control over the recurring issue.

Challenges for Smart Cities in Crisis

The challenge for smart cities that utilize complex digital networks to manage hundreds, if not thousands, of city systems and services, is that any device that relies on software to function is a potential cyber-attack victim. Smart city initiatives have been criticized by development experts as having been ‘procured and developed with little coordinated consideration of privacy and security harms’ as systematic vulnerabilities like those seen in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Sint Marteen, become quickly exposed by criminal hackers.

Fast and complete recovery from a cyber-attack depends on quick and perfect damage assessment according to security experts. A recent 2018 Deloitte report concerning Crisis Management found that despite 46% of crisis management experts being mobilized in the past two years for cyber-related incidents, the 523 organizations surveyed displayed confidence that exceeded their crisis preparedness. The report also found that being prepared ‘significantly reduces the negative impact of a crisis’ and recommended that ‘crisis management should not begin with a crisis’.

This data can simply show that Smart Cities need to invest in the data security of their cities’ critical infrastructure so that there is only minimum risk involved, to ensure stable, reliable, and secure smart systems. In the case of Atlanta, this month the Atlanta City Council approved in its 2019 budget plan a $3.5 million packet for upgrades to the city’s IT security and infrastructure, serving as an example to all that data security is an investment for the future.

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