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The future has arrived and it looks smart

Self driving, autonomous smart cars ride the roads.
Self driving, autonomous smart cars ride the roads.

The concept of a smart city may conjure visions of a Jetsons-inspired city of the future, but many features of what makes a city smart are already part of everyday life.

Our televisions are linked to the internet, fridges can order groceries from the supermarket, voice-activated assistants play our favourite music and answer questions on demand, buses can be self-driving and drones are used for everything from delivering packages (at least in the US), to coastline patrols, to filming footage for the nightly news.

But as cities become more connected and increasingly reliant on technology cyber security becomes a significant risk.

ECU School of Science cyber security senior lecturer Dr Zubair Baig says many cities, including Perth, are already semi-smart, constantly exchanging data and storing information in the Cloud.

But his latest research paper looks at how the same connectedness that will transform the way we live of lives also underscores the challenge that cyber threats pose for the four key components of a smart city — smart grids, building automation systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and smart vehicles – given their reliance on the Internet of Things and cloud platforms.

Baig says that these components are increasingly becoming a target for cyber security threats.

“Everything is digitised, and data is being generated by these devices and wirelessly communicated for storage to a centralised location,” he says.

“If you look at it from cyber security and a forensic viewpoint, it is essential that this data is not leaked to hackers, sold in the digital black market, or deliberately modified. It must be transported in a secure manner across any two points.”

Baig says mobile phones present the most vulnerable target because they contain so many apps that are poorly secured, providing a potential backdoor into personal home networks.

It was essential phones were protected by a password and only secure and verified apps downloaded, he says – and third-party apps that could contain malware should be avoided.

“In a nutshell, it is about ensuring private communication in a public world,” he says. “It is hard, but it is important.”

Smart grids

To picture the smart city of the future, it is worth starting at the most fundamental connection – the power that keeps the lights (and internet) on.

The smart grid marks the evolution of the electricity network, with smart meter technology scheduled to be available in Perth this year, after pilots of smart meters in a range of locations.

The technology enables consumers to share information about their power usage, turn it on or off, through smart meters.

“In a smart grid, a smart meter monitors your electricity usage and can provide a breakdown of the number of watts consumed by your household at various times of the day,” Baig says.

Advanced meters are due to be installed widely by Western Power this year, allowing West Australian homeowners to take on new technologies such as peer-to-peer energy sharing.

The advanced meters will also collect data about the connection to a home or business, providing an early warning system and allowing for early maintenance, potentially preventing faults.

But, for smart grids to remain secure, Baig says information collected, stored and communicated by smart meters and the utility provider must be encrypted, and only accessed by authorised people.

Smart cities are the cities of the future.
Smart cities are the cities of the future.

Automated buildings

The smart grid will help keep the power on, but a smart city needs the buildings connected to the grid to be smart as well.

To achieve the vision of a smart city, Baig says common building systems such as air-conditioning, elevators, closed-circuit television, lighting, water and energy can be integrated with sensors to allow real-time reporting.

The building’s operations can then be managed automatically, depending on the needs and usage of tenants, and observed remotely over the internet — making it possible to watch the operation of entire blocks from a single dashboard.

But the increased connectivity of building systems means they are exposed to the same cyber-security threats as traditional IT networks, and Baig says governments need to engage with industries to ensure data security.

Governments could develop and implement policies that required appropriate security in all smart devices sold.

Unmanned aerial vehicles

In the skies above the smarter buildings fly another form of smart device.

Drones have become widely available commercial tools and recreational novelties, and it’s likely they will provide a platform for services to gather data in an interconnected city.

But studies have shown civilian drones often lack encrypted communication between the controller and the device, making them susceptible to remote hijacking and video interception.

Baig says this challenge can also be addressed if buyers are proactive.

“You have to prevent them from failing by being hacked, because if they fail they will crash – possibly hitting someone,” he says.

“As a user, you should buy these devices from known, established vendors, ensuring they store data securely and that it can be safely transmitted.”

Drones play a bit part in smart cities.
Drones play a bit part in smart cities.

Smart vehicles

On the roads of the smart city are smart vehicles — and the promise of being able to read your texts in peace while your car navigates the way home.

The RAC trial of the fully automated, driverless Intellibus in South Perth is a glimpse of the

future of transport — and a future getting nearer every day.

Baig says today’s modern vehicles already feature smart components such GPS, diagnostic systems and integrated infotainment systems, and regularly report their coordinates to base stations.

It is just a small step for the car to speak to road-side sensors about factors on the road, including speed limits, traffic conditions and the number of passengers in the car.

The integration of smart vehicles with the cloud would allow drivers to access real-time information while driving a smart vehicle, as well as providing a wealth of information to investigators if the vehicle was used in a crime.

Once again, though, there is the risk of a cyber attack, and the prospect of weaponised traffic doesn’t bear thinking about.

Baig says more work is needed to develop methods for handling incidents involving smart vehicles while preserving the personal privacy of drivers.

Internet of Things sensors

To keep the drone in the air talking to the car on the ground about the roadworks ahead on the road, enter the Internet of Things or IoT.

IoT is an enabling technology for smart cities, providing the option of connecting nearly any device to the internet, whether that is a road sensor indicating when a bridge is under stress or a street light that adapts to the weather and brightens an overcast day.

Baig says everything from fridges and televisions to power points and gates can be linked to online accounts and controlled remotely increasing cyber security risk.

Before buying smart appliances like a fridge or TV, consumers need to confirm the device receives regular software updates to ensure the most up-to-date cyber protection, he says.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘is my router secure?’ ‘Did I secure all the other devices on my home network – my iPad, my Xbox, my smart washing machine?’,” he says.

“If a device cannot be updated then it becomes a channel for an adversary to enter your home networks and becomes a launch pad to an attack on other home systems.”

In the cloud

Invisible but everywhere, the last essential component of the smart city is the cloud — where the data generated by a smart city and its millions of inhabitants is stored and transacted.

Given the potential for vulnerabilities in the different components, however, there is the potential to affect data stored using cloud computing.

Cloud security is primarily the duty of service providers responsible for safeguarding the information, Baig says, but with greater connectedness came greater risk that an attack on one part of the network could have implications for other parts.

“The enabling technology to protect data is already here,” he says.

“The question is whether the devises are secure enough or can be secured before they are deployed in the smart city network.”


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