How hackers could turn a 'smart city' into a house of cards

With hackers targeting city government systems, there’s a growing fear that the so-called high-tech “smart city” of the future could be turned into a house of cards.

Cities are adopting artificial intelligence and machine learning to help with infrastructure, yet security experts warn there’s a danger of hackers compromising networks, causing widespread pandemonium, and even infiltrating government systems.

Here’s an example. Say a metro area like Minneapolis decides to connect a highway system to robotic cars, which are then directed automatically by GPS to slow down, find alternate routes, or even find a parking spot and wait for congestion to subside. It’s a nirvana state, but it’s also a nightmare scenario. A hacker could find one unprotected access point and, without a lot of effort, tap into the transportation system and instruct all cars to drive much faster.

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With a smart city, the goal is to connect multiple systems. Lighting in a park might connect to motion sensors that monitor pedestrians, which in turn can alert police to send more patrols to that area as needed. A hacker with access could instruct all police to stay away from that area or break into the lighting system and turn the entire park dark for several hours.

“The greatest benefits will come with great levels of interconnectedness, allowing an artificial intelligence app to determine exactly which street lights should be brightened as cyclists traverse along local bike paths or having smart stop signs communicate with autonomous vehicles,” says Duncan Greatwood, the CEO of security firm Xage.

Yet, this incredible interconnectivity -- with city services for energy, utilities, sanitation, healthcare, architecture, and much more -- also poses a grave danger.

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One of the most troubling scenarios? Alexandru Balan, a researcher at security company Bitdefender, explained to Fox News that some smart cities use connected power meters, but the city usually mandates that these meters connect via a consumer mobile network using a SIM card that’s similar to the one in your smartphone. A hacker could find a way to shut down the power to an entire city, possibly by compromising only one of those meters.

Public kiosks that use Wi-Fi, billboards that display emergency services messages, highway cameras used to read license plates on cars -- they all help a city relay information to citizens and assist city officials, but they also make prime targets for criminals.

Dana Simberkoff, the chief risk, privacy and information security officer at AvePoint, says there is an incredible risk. Once a hacker penetrates a smart city, he or she could access military information like troop locations, when dignitaries might be visiting, border information, and reams of government financial data.

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“The hack of this information could even perpetuate potential national security threats or terrorist activities, and the potential for the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of this kind of sensitive information continues to grow,” she says. As with corporate security measures, she argues that it is best for cities to assume networks can be hacked, and to develop a multi-layered approach so that one compromised system doesn’t lead to a city-wide security breach.

Greatwood says the answer, in part, is to see a smart city as “hardened” in that they should be unhackable -- or at least extremely difficult to hack. Lives are at stake, he says.

Sadly, all of the experts said the smart city connections are becoming increasingly complex, not managed with tight enough security, and yet evolving quickly. A major hack, one that shuts down city services, might be the only way to wake up city officials to the dangers.