Can We Trust Our Smart City? What We Need from Cybersecurity for the Future of IoT Cities Featured

Can We Trust Our Smart City? What We Need from Cybersecurity for the Future of IoT Cities Image Credit: Yukta Lavannya/The Fast Mode

As the IoT continues to proliferate and more low-cost connected devices are deployed across the globe, the vision of a fully-functioning smart city has become a widely-discussed reality - and companies, municipalities and other key stakeholders are beginning to take note. According to recent research from IDC, worldwide spending on smart city initiatives will reach $95.8 billion in 2019. Specifically, they claim that Singapore, New York City, Tokyo, and London will each invest more than $1 billion in smart city programs in 2019 alone. These initiatives, which utilize connected technology for energy, transportation, and public safety - with devices like security cameras and traffic, environmental, parking, or road sensors - would ideally create an integrated system that make our cities safer and improve our quality of life.  But the addition of thousands of connected sensors and controllers opens up potential vulnerabilities and can serve as a primary target for cyber-attacks. 

As the smart city becomes a reality, we want to avoid these initiatives being slowed down by cyber security breaches. So, how do we ensure we are incorporating security measures and making cities as trustworthy as they are smart?

Challenges in smart city cybersecurity

To control and monitor the thousands of connected devices and applications that make up the smart city, each device needs to be connected to a Command and Control or Operational Center that has visibility and control over each end point and the ability to engage devices, identify malfunctioning devices, update devices, deploy security measures, and more.  Some of these features already exist (e.g. connected traffic lights); however, with an increase in connectivity and more complex implementations of IoT, we can only expect to see more of these connected systems in our cities in the future.

The scale and implications of a cyberattack on a smart city’s infrastructure are massive: Just imagine what would happen if an adversary tries to compromise the system, the devices, the connectivity, or even the command center in a smart city. If a hacker or terrorist organization were able to access a city system like public transit or manipulate traffic cameras and project rough inputs, they would be able to cause mass chaos and destruction in seconds. While this kind of dangerous scene may seem more akin to a storyline for a futuristic action movie, the impending development of smart cities means that threats such as this will seem less like science fiction horror stories and more like realistic dangers. 

The challenge is that there is a growing need for a system to strictly manage all of this connected technology in order to ensure that as the smart city grows, its risk do not.

Securing smart cities against threats is currently a massive challenge. For one, the edge devices that comprise a smart city are distributed across many miles and are exposed to the general population with limited restriction. Moreover, a smart city’s network is always expanding - and its data is always increasing. And, because the smart city is a public environment, the network is always exposed - whether it’s a wired or wireless network (e.g. LORA, 5G, WiFi) - making it susceptible to malicious elements.  

Economics present another challenge. City-planners and local administrations will generally seek cost-effective solutions when planning for smart city projects, but these restrictions could impact the bottom line in a way that limits the amount of security controllers for edge devices, therefore leaving the city’s larger network at risk for attack. 

Today, many of these IoT edge devices rely on the CPU to detect and block attacks, authenticate access, analyze communication, and utilize TEE or secure-boot etc: Intel Spoiler, Meltdown and Mirai Botnet are recent attacks that uncovered fundamental issues with CPU designs. The growing number of devices and complexity of a smart city calls for a new, out-of-the-box approach to cybersecurity; one that bypasses the CPU to offer increased protection and management.

Enter: the new cloud-to-flash methodology for protecting IoT and edge devices.

A new approach: cloud-to-flash security

A cloud-to-flash solution protects the firmware of an edge device from any unauthorized manipulation in the memory itself. With this approach, even in the case of a physical or network breach, the firmware in the memory cannot be compromised. This cloud-to-flash protection uses the capabilities from the processors in the edge devices to modify the content of the firmware and make it impossible to access by any kind of adversary.

This proposed solution is very cost-effective, as it is a hardware solution built into the existing memory, that doesn’t add additional modules to the system, and it doesn’t complicate the software integration or development as the system scales. 

In addition to being complex, the very nature of a smart city is constantly evolving, especially as we’re still learning how to properly implement and execute various smart city applications. Because of this need, a security solution must be able to scale over time as the smart city continues to evolve, but this also presents yet another challenge for city planners and other decision-makers. Even after an ironclad device protection platform is installed that can resist physical and network attacks, there is still the issue of maintaining the same level of security over time as the network evolves. City planners and others must be able to ensure that their system is securely updated with a trusted, manageable system, for years into the future; the architecture must not only protect the network and devices from a breach but also ensure visibility of the network and enable monitoring and management of the system. 

Maintaining regular, secure updates is vital for the safety of smart cities and the people who populate them. Most update mechanisms today are manually executed by a technician; but this requires a connection with the edge device, which raises the concern that any remote update could increase the risk of attack and manipulation of the device. There is also the issue of this current model being expensive, which often causes updates to be less frequent. Less frequent updates mean increased risk for downtime scenarios and the increased potential for all the data that the edge devices send to the command center to be compromised. Thus, it is critical to implement a secure update mechanism that will enable remote updates for the smart city, in addition to using a management platform that is trustworthy.

The new, cloud-to-flash protection approach configures the mechanism for secure updates and trustworthy management. By creating a secure channel between the cloud and the flash memory in the edge device, cloud-to-flash protection makes it possible to send a secure update all the way from the cloud to the flash memory, regardless of the status of the network, the status of the processor, or the version installed in the flash. 

This secure channel can also be used to send status reports from the flash memory back to the management server to indicate when something looks harmful, when there is a breach, if a device needs to be quarantined, or even if an attack has been prevented. Cloud-to-flash protection also provides status on the downtime of the device, the version, its latest update and more. Most importantly, all of this information can be trusted, as it cannot be manipulated by the software on the processor - even if it’s compromised.  

By increasing the security of edge devices, the cloud-to-flash approach offers a holistic solution to all of the challenges of smart cities and IoT domains.  This solution is further unique in that provides secure, trustworthy results without increasing the BoM cost - a benefit not commonly found in other IoT cybersecurity platforms. Cloud-to-flash can reduce operational costs - such as technician updates - and unexpected downtime, while offering advanced monitoring of devices. Together, all of these features make cloud-to-flash protection an attractive approach to security for industrial, automotive, and IoT markets. 

Over the next five to ten years, we will begin to see more progress made in smart city implementation and technology maturity. In order to continue making smart cities a reality, we must identify a security platform that can both manage smart city’s complexities, while facilitating a trustworthy management and update mechanism.

Yoni Kahana, VP Customers, NanoLock Security, brings more than 20 years of experience in managing, leading and developing large-scale projects in secure telecommunications and embedded systems, from idea-stage to completion in R&D, product and business environments. Yoni brings extensive cybersecurity experience, with specific expertise in securing embedded and connected devices in connected vehicles and IoT devices. Prior to NanoLock, Yoni was the Product Cybersecurity Group Manager for General Motors (GM), where he managed the Israeli Cybersecurity Group responsible for securing crucial elements in the car. He also was a Security System Team leader and Security System Product Engineer at Qualcomm and served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in an elite unit where he led and developed cybersecurity solutions.


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