The Eternal Challenge to Smart Cities

From their earliest manifestations, defence has been at heart of the relationship between cities and citizens. Today’s smart cities must take steps to continue to honor that agreement.

By Xische Editorial, June 6, 2019

Source: VectorWeb/ Shutterstock

Source: VectorWeb/Shutterstock

Trends in smart cities underpin how wealthy cities strive to keep up with the latest technology to deliver the best experience. While competition for smart city bragging rights may sound frivolous, we seldom consider what happens when cities are unable to incorporate new technologies or even upgrade their existing systems to current software standards. The results can be terrible. The case of the US city of Baltimore demonstrates just how drastic such a situation can become.

A medium-sized American city facing budget shortfalls and a rising population, Baltimore hasn’t updated its computer networks in quite a long time. Hackers, using a software programme designed by the National Security Agency called EternalBlue, infected the city’s computer system with a virus that effectively shut down the entire network. Designed as a weapon to attack extremist networks, EternalBlue is an exploitation of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system.

After it was deployed on Baltimore, the city’s email and other vital functions came to a halt. Even real estate transactions were frozen. The cyber attack was actually the second to hit Baltimore in the last 14 months. In 2018, emergency phone services were hacked leaving critical 911 services completely down for residents.

The hackers demanded a ransom of 13 Bitcoins or roughy $100,000 but the city refused to pay them. Instead officials brought in a team of cybersecurity researchers and only last week, city employees regained access to their email. In the end, officials estimate that Baltimore lost more than $18 million in uncollected fees and lost productivity.

What does an EternalBlue attack in Baltimore mean for smart cities around the world? For one thing, incorporating smart city innovation is no longer a luxury but a matter of necessity in the digital age. Whether your city runs on a private blockchain or uses outdated versions of Windows, cities have gone digital and hackers are coming for vulnerable software. While the smart city marketing machine promotes improvements to the urban landscape and increased to quality of life, the proliferation of digital assets in an invitation to attack. Smart cities are as much about customer experience as cyber security and ensuring that systems are in place to avoid an attack like EternalBlue.

This is all the more critical when we consider how many people are moving to cities today. As we have noted in the past, just 200 million people lived in cities worldwide at the turn of the 19th century. Today, 200 million people live in the world’s 12 most populous cities.

The research group IHS identified 21 cities that met their smart city criteria in 2013, and predict that number will more than quadruple, to 88 smart cities, by 2025. But as cities of all sizes begin adopting smart technologies, more liberal estimates suggest the number of active smart city projects in 2017 approaches 10 times that number. In their 2017 Smart City Tracker report, Navigant Research identifies at least 250 smart city projects in 178 cities worldwide. The real number of smart city initiatives is likely higher still.

A June 2015 report from Siemens raised the stakes even higher: the technology giant reported a $575 billion market size for smart cities in 2014, and predicted the market could grow as high as $1.2 trillion by 2019, with a 19.9% growth rate. The potential profitability of smart cities is another draw. Navigant Research predicts that the global income from smart technologies will triple between 2013 and 2023: growing from $8.8 billion to $27.5 billion in a 10-year period.

Investment is pouring into the smart city space. Cybersecurity figures are just as high in some places but the pace of investment could be higher. Put simply, more needs to be spent on security to protect smart city infrastructure. In small cities from the Philippines to Columbia, critical infrastructure has been left vulnerable to attack. Indeed, smart cities themselves are always a moving target for malicious agents and hackers. City governments need to constantly evolve and use the latest technology to deliver the best human experience. That includes protecting urban residents against malicious digital attacks. From their earliest manifestations, cities have placed defence at the core of their objectives.

No amount of innovation will help improve our collective city experience without the right security in place. If smart city developments strive to be truly holistic, there is ample room to create the tools and systems that keep cities like Baltimore safe in a reasonably affordable manner. As demand for security increases, costs should come down. As more and more people move to cities, we are more interconnected than ever. When one city is attacked, we all have lessons to learn.