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Why Cybersecurity Is Crucial in Smart Cities

Why Cybersecurity Is Crucial in Smart Cities

By Ludovic F. Rembert, Head of Research at Privacy Canada.

Smart cities are the future. Today more than ever, nations around the globe are starting to adopt new developments to enhance their cities’ smart capabilities.

One such nation is Macau, which joined hands with the Chinese technology giant Alibaba group in 2017. The goal was to develop a public-private partnership project that aims to turn the special administrative region into a leading smart city in the Asia Pacific region.

The Macau-Alibaba partnership

Banking on the technologies of the Alibaba group’s cloud computing arm, Alibaba Cloud, the partnership’s main goal was to improve the IT infrastructure in Macau to pave the way for major digital developments, particularly in healthcare, governance, tourism, transportation, and talent development.

In order to help Macau transform into a smart city, these plans include developing an integrated system for enhancing public and tourism services, and building a smart transportation network, among many other things. This system is called a city brain, which is designed to use fast-evolving artificial intelligence technologies to gather and process large amounts of data in supercomputers and then feed that information back around the city.

The partnership is specifically divided into two phases. The first phase (already concluded in August of 2019) has seen the transportation, tourism, travel, healthcare, and public governance sectors adopt smart capabilities. The second phase, however, still requires various government departments to obtain cybersecurity certifications first before they can proceed. The phase is set to conclude in 2021 and will include projects related to environmental protection, customs, and finance.

Why City Brains Rely Upon Cloud Computing

City brains make use of real-time comprehensive aggregation and convergence of network, government, imaging devices, and IoT sensor data to instantly correct defects in urban operations. This allows for a more intelligent deployment of natural, police, hydropower, medical, administrative, and road resources.

For example, one of the most common defects in urban operations is traffic congestion. This is further worsened by natural phenomena such as monsoon rains and flooding. At times, massive development projects can also lead to this problem, resulting in millions of dollars’ worth of losses each year.

City brains also lead to smart healthcare as it streamlines operations by improving medical records. With the help of intelligent algorithms, city brains can find anomalies in medical institutions and schedule operations by predicting medical requirements accurately and optimizing medical resources distribution.

Solutions to the elaborate drawbacks of rapid haphazard urbanization such as these require analysis of huge amounts of data from multiple complicated networks. With the cloud computing that city brains rely on, this is made easier, faster, and more convenient. The intangible nature of this technology is also best for the sustainability of such breakthroughs and developments.

Additionally, since city brains rely upon the cloud for storage of data, they tend to be more secure than traditional storage options such as physical drives, which come with more security vulnerabilities, scalability issues, and more recoverability problems.

City Brains in Smart Cities

During the first phase of the partnership in 2018, over 30 million tourists arrived in Macau. Alibaba helped the Macau Government Tourism Office (MGTO) analyze real-time tourist flows in peak hours to divert visitors to alternative scenic spots. The group had to adjust the algorithm to fit Macau, helping it balance the number of tourists and the many heritage buildings that the city houses.

Even though Macau is Alibaba’s first smart city venture outside the mainland, the group already has a proven track record in smart city development. In Suzhou, Alibaba Cloud has already helped the city efficiently manage its bus networks, increasing the passenger volume on pilot bus routes by 17%.

Alibaba’s Hangzhou City Brain, an artificial intelligence-enabled transportation management system, is also now slowly reaping the benefits of the original City Brain project. With automatic traffic signal control in Hangzhou’s Xiaoshan district, traffic speed has increased by 15%, reducing the average travel time by 3 minutes. Meanwhile, emergency vehicle response shortened by 50%, allowing rescue vehicles to arrive 7 minutes faster.

As in the examples mentioned above, the city brain allows for efficient management of mass transit systems, as well as the improvement of traffic congestion and signal control. It also helps in accident and disaster management, expediting response from the police, fire protection, and medical rescue with its real-time alarm data.

Basically, smart cities leverage connectivity, and all the available data insights, security, and compliance of city brains to optimize convenience and efficiency on the way of life and work of the city’s citizens.

Preparing For Modernization

With practices already in use in the Asian mainland ranging from using artificial intelligence for the optimization of road, air, and water transportation management, Alibaba Cloud has been helping local governments in China effectively make management decisions through building ‘city brains’ with its big data and deep learning technologies.

Alibaba accomplishes this since its city brain system is specifically dependent on the SaaS cloud model, which means that all data resides with the service provider and that software can be sent to an end user from within the cloud environment. In this context, Alibaba’s SaaS system can connect smart systems across a city and then map the massive amount of data that it collects.

These kinds of functions are meant to make it easier for cities to provide insights from complex data sets in real-time, which can hopefully create a safer environment along with higher quality service to everyday citizens.

In Macau, Alibaba has already launched the Macau Talent Program, which provides local students with training programs and fosters a local technology ecosystem so that the city can create its own group of talented cloud computing and e-commerce professionals. It has also established the Hong Kong and Macau Eco Alliance that provides enterprises of the different industries access to Alibaba’s immense train of solutions and its extensive suite of international partners.

Modernization is inevitable, especially now that the use of technology is an integral part of life. It’s really that big of a step now as it would have been before there were smartphones with AI capabilities like speech and face recognition, text identification, and natural language processing (NLP). Nowadays, these technologies are used for all the little things like unlocking phones, smart typing, and voice directing.

Ensuring Security in Smart Cities

As smart cities get even smarter, ensuring their security becomes more important. After all, they rely heavily on networks of information and on connections between systems, sensors, and devices.

With this vastness, there can be cyber-attackers taking advantage of a “bolted on” security and infiltrate the systems, exfiltrate sensitive information, and even potentially disrupt critical operations.

What used to be the norm could become dangerous in smart cities. For instance, ransomware attacks typically bank on people who only use traditional methods to store their data. Providers are now starting to ramp up their security against ransomware attacks, and many support automatically versioned backups in order to prevent loss of data.

Without effectively designing security into a system as basic as this, hackers can look for unsecured ports, get access to residents’ home computer networks, and steal personal data like banking or insurance records.

In a smart city environment, humans are often the weak links in the cybersecurity chain due to poor security hygiene. People accessing cloud services should be educated about simple things like good authentication policies, frequent and regular password changing, and multi-factor authentication.

On the government level, there is a clear lack of governance regarding issues such as data handling, privacy policies, and access privileges. There is no need for an army of security engineers, but a team familiar with the cybersecurity discipline should be good enough for a start.

Lastly, there are unintended chains of consequences to these digital connections accessed via the internet and massive cloud computing architectures. This is why security by design, good security hygiene, and a team of cyber-specialists are absolutely critical when ensuring safety and privacy in smart cities.

Welcoming Smart Cities of the Future

Smart cities are complex technological ecosystems of public services, public and private organizations, network systems, sensors and devices, and cloud computing architecture.

The constant interaction and convergence of physical and digital infrastructures, immense data exchanges even between the old and new systems, and the dynamically changing processes require all data to be always secure, as well as the systems and related processes to be safe from prying hands.

It is therefore necessary, such as the case of Macau (where there is an emphasis on obtaining cybersecurity certificates before proceeding), to make sure that smart cities are cyber-secure. Only when the possibilities of cyber risks are managed more effectively will the full potential of smart cities be realized.

With a more secure and resilient operating environment, there’s less need to worry about glitches and more time to constantly achieve breakthroughs in the continuous development of smart cities around the world.

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