The concept of “smart cities” is no longer confined to the realms of futuristic science fiction—they’re quickly becoming part of our everyday reality.
Technologies like self-driving buses that communicate with traffic lights and AI-monitored CCTV cameras are being implemented in cities from Singapore to Las Vegas, and the technology behind these smart-city initiatives promises innovative solutions for both municipalities and their citizens—offering safer and more efficient living for an ever-growing population.
The smart-city promise is often delivered without the fine print though: namely, that a single attack waged against just one component of a connected infrastructure could disable an entire smart city in a matter of minutes. The finer print? The attack could come from a single line of code.
This looming threat is turning the promises of revolutionized living standards into a potential menace to public safety. More than 40 local governments across the U.S. were victimized by ransomware in the first eight months of 2019 alone, halting public services and systems for weeks. And as municipal networks expand to encompass thousands of connected devices, facilities, and even critical infrastructure, cities must ready themselves for the inevitable threats these technologies will incur.
We live in an age of hyperconnectivity, and this is opening up vulnerabilities at a rate and scale greater than ever before. The technologies that allow us the greatest digital freedoms, like 5G and IoT, also pose some of the greatest threats to smart cities.
Smart cities are continuing to rapidly harness new technologies to drive efficiencies and improve living standards, but this digital transformation has been far from ubiquitous.
Despite all the new tech, many local governments still rely on outdated, sometimes decades-old IT that is especially vulnerable to attack, in part because updating major public sector systems is an enormous undertaking that can require years of bureaucratic red tape. A postmortem of the infamous Atlanta ransomware breach in 2018, for instance, found that its information technology was “woefully disorganized and outdated,” and by her own admission, the mayor had not prioritized cybersecurity enough.
Meanwhile, the coming 5G rollout will unlock an explosion of IoT devices. This fifth generation of cellular networks will allow cities to integrate smart sensors with self-driving vehicles, maintenance robots, and a host of other innovative technology. Current security tools are programmed to only look for historical threats against conventional technology systems. As a result, they are blind to novel attacks that target smart cities’ bespoke IoT networks. In the context of 5G, future attacks will strike faster than ever before, and be able to break into just one connected device in order to spread an infection across an entire cityscape in seconds. No team of human security professionals can mount a response under that kind of time pressure. Of course, these critical challenges represent lucrative opportunities in the eyes of cybercriminals.
We don’t have to look far to find a solution to defending cities powered by emerging technologies, though. In fact, artificial intelligence (AI) is the most effective and simplest way to protect cities at scale, with dozens of the largest U.S. utilities, transportation systems, counties, and municipalities already making use of “cyber AI immune systems”— which use algorithms to instantly fight back against cyberattacks, and stop emerging threats in their tracks. Armed with AI that evolves with an organization, governments not only protect themselves against existing threats, but are also prepared to face whatever vulnerabilities new technologies bring.
Perhaps no city better understands the imperative of AI—both to build smart infrastructures and to defend them—than Las Vegas, whose leadership has placed a sizable bet on AI across the board. The city is already hanging sensors from traffic signals that include motion-detecting cameras, LiDAR scanners, infrared monitors, weather probes, and sound detectors. Their sensors even use machine-learning software to look for litter and other problems in street images, all while the first completely autonomous shuttle deployed on a public roadway zips along beneath them.
Las Vegas takes an ingenious approach to cybersecurity by operating under a surprising assumption: Motivated attackers will inevitably infiltrate their targets. Whereas conventional cyber defenses attempt to stop known threats by keeping them outside the network perimeter, there are simply too many potential access points to secure in an expansive smart city. At the same time, sophisticated criminals and nation-state actors are always finding uncharted weaknesses in new IoT devices. Attempting to lock the bad guys out is simply a losing strategy.
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