Securing Data in Smart Cities: A Challenge that Looms Large

Exploding population- and the needs it brings along is the very reason why governments across the world have been focusing on a major transformation- Smart Cities. Resource scarcity is the ultimate problem being addressed by smart cities. Additionally, smart cities rely on latest technology innovations, to optimize the sourcing and optimal consumption of resources, along with making new provisions for essential services, including housing, energy, education and law enforcement- integrating all these services with daily lives of residents rather seamlessly. The seamless integration, which ensures efficient utilization of available assets and resources is really the key to how successful smart cities would really be.

However, what is at the heart of a smart city? The answer is – a massive amount of data.

Highly advanced integrated technologies- including sensors electronic, and networks are used in the making of the smart cities. These complex networks- linked with computerized systems encompassing databases, tracking, and decision-making algorithms, makes the city systems vulnerable to security threats. The interdependence of urban growth, technology, infrastructure and capital requirement enhance the threat- presenting a unique set challenges to the implementation of smart cities- data security in smart cities.

Ransomware, the Most Destructive and Energy Sector, the Most Susceptible to Attack: New Study

In a new study – ISACA, a security professional association surveyed nearly 2,000 security and risk professionals, who pointed out some substantial security threats. Gaining insights from their various risk management strategies and future technology initiatives, the survey found that malware and ransomware were among the top concerns followed by frequent and destructive denial of service attacks were also seen as potential threat sources. According to the respondents, areas like transportation systems, environmental systems and local and regional government- places for massive data- are the more susceptible to ransomware attacks. Ironically, critical infrastructure including energy, communications and financial services- that enormously contributes in making of a smart city are the most susceptible- national governments being better suited to confront such potential threats.

Planning to prevent future infrastructure attacks and engaging residents about these plans is the need of the hour and a timely wake-up call for the government for data security in smart cities. Economically and socially critical sectors such as energy, communications and financial services require national governments and municipals to work more collaboratively and develop ‘smart solution’ by deploying data analytics, smart grids, machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and other emerging technologies. The threat is glaring and definitely for real. Data theft from smart meters can lead to profiling of home users, transportation systems can be at risk, and sewage systems can be hacked to poison local resources. The list just goes on.

However, while smart city planners and officials from city planning departments and other related organizations continue to struggle with security, some progress towards data security in smart cities could just be the beginning. ‘Securing Smart Cities’– a not-for-profit global initiative for securing smart cities has made a head start and “aims to solve the existing and future cybersecurity problems of smart cities through collaboration between companies, governments, and media outlets amongst other not-for-profit initiatives and individuals across the world.”

Did I say, Use Blockchain to Secure Data in Smart Cities?


Already found wide application in various sectors including banking, health, e-commerce, transportation, government and public- blockchain, a Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), which allows a peer-to-peer exchange of information and value, is perhaps the most suitable and viable solution for information and communication systems in smart cities. Considering that not every system can be secured fully, organizations can consider applying strong multiple layers of security to make it time-consuming and costly for hackers. This layered security is blockchain. According to industry experts, at the time of cyber-attacks, IoT devices are unable to gauge the situation and make a security decision. Blockchain, on the contrary, understands this behavior and enables device networks to protect themselves by allowing devices to form group consensus about what is normal within a given network, and negate any activity that might seem unusual.

Incorporating blockchain to secure data in smart cities will connect the cities’ different services, adding greater transparency and security to all processes- thereby improving, government management, urban planning, sustainable transportation, smart building, and public safety. Additionally, research has shown that blockchain is not limited to just transactional data and can record anything- which can be further used for managing assets, maintaining devices including repairs and breakdowns and, recovering device history. The ‘smart’ devices are often unable to unmeasured these threats which may often lead to loss of the massive amount of data ad critical failure. If estimates are to be believed, 1 in 5 IoT devices will deploy basic blockchain by 2020. Ultimately, using blockchain could easily beef up security, remove failures, streamline processes and prove to be cost effective, considering that ‘blocks’ in the blockchain are only available to organizations with the right encryption key.

Identity Management: First Major 5G Security Challenge for Smart Cities

5G connectivity will be the underlying technology connecting everything after its wide deployment over the next couple years. In fact, according to a study by Gartner, there will be 20 billion connected things by 2020. Although this could mean the opportunity to some, it stands exposed data sabotaging threat without proper security in place. According to a recent study that has to be three checkpoints for securing IoT data: where the data is collected: Device; where is the data sent: Cloud; and managing lifecycle between device and cloud.

Device: To ensure data security in smart cities deploying 5G technologies, mobile operators must come with tamper-resistant SIMs that requires strong authentication tokens and securely identify devices on global mobile networks. Additionally, Hardware security modules (HSMs)-that acts as a central trust point between networks and application, should be added.

Cloud: Grown much stronger in recent years, when cloud computing was introduced to the world, it was a huge concern. Cloud helps secure intellectual property through data encryption and identity and access management along with cloud-based licensing and entitlement.

Lifecycle Management: However, once a network of safeguards is created it cannot be left in the space to bloom, or die on its own. Or, even secure itself! Management of devices and cloud and the exchange of data must be critically monitored. When new devices are added to the network, it is essential to remove the old ones or even integrate devices to the new cloud ecosystem. Identity and access management options must be built into the system from the beginning, considering that large amount of data is stored on such networks.

Identification options on the cloud such as requiring mutual authentication between a device and network, make strong authentication the most important factor for identity management. 5G connectivity would mobile operators’ flexibility to choose authentication methods such as token cards or pre-shared keys.

The Rise of ‘Smart Citizens’

What are smart cities without citizen- who play an important role in saving cities from potential data threat and sabotaging? According to the Observer, “offering people access to engineers and data sets is only half the solution. Real participation also requires involving citizens in the ethical deliberations surrounding smart initiatives and educating them about the trade-offs involved in weaving data collection into the urban fabric. Only by integrating the inalienable with the innovative can cities form a responsible blueprint for the future.”

It is critical that citizen do not just use the smart technologies given to them but also play an active part in developing and implementing these tools. Now, that would make a smart city. Development of smart cities is on a rise that really brings citizen and governments to interact and work efficiently. But the threat data security in smart cities looms large- wherein citizens can play an active role.

What’s Next for Smart Cities?

Successful smart cities are an amalgamation effortless and endless reinvention. Exiting solutions emerging from R&D in artificial intelligence, big data, virtual reality and nano-technologies are revealing new insights and opportunities for various smart city projects to make them sustainable and scalable.

For communities- smart cities create a platform to find, test and implement new ideas, and create positive changes in their neighborhood. This feature of ‘community inclusion’ is what makes cities ‘smart’.

Abhishek Budholiya

Abhishek Budholiya is a tech blogger, digital marketing pro, and has contributed to numerous tech magazines. Currently, as a technology and digital branding consultant, he offers his analysis on the tech market research landscape. His forte is analysing the commercial viability of a new breakthrough, a trait you can see in his writing. When he is not ruminating about the tech world, he can be found playing table tennis or hanging out with his friends.