Smart cities are a mixed bag of business opportunities and cyberattacks

Smart cities are expected to boost lucrative business opportunities for the UAE and the region. However, the Internet of Things (IoT), the technology underpinning these complex and interconnected urban networks, offers a considerably expanded attack surface for cyber adversaries of all kinds, according to a report launched today by Digital14, a UAE-based trusted advisor in digital transformation and cyber resilience. The report, Smart Cities: the Power, the Risks, the Response, also suggests cyberattacks are expected to rise, as the government and organisations adopt the benefits of smart city technologies. 

“Smart cities will undoubtedly unlock enormous efficiency and productivity gains for the UAE and other nations,” said Joshua Knight, Executive Vice President Cyber Defence at Digital14. “However, the highly networked environment that UAE companies operate within offers opportunities to release prolific malware that can have catastrophic ramifications, or stimulate lucrative criminal enterprises. By their very nature, smart cities simply broaden the attack surface available to malicious actors.”

There are an estimated 22 billion networked devices worldwide. The interconnected nature of smart cities means that by 2025, that number is forecast to rise to 38.6 billion1. Each of these devices serves as an entry point for malicious actors, with everyday gadgets such as IP cameras and digital video recorders (DVRs) likely to be at the greatest risk. In fact, more than 25% of attacks against enterprises this year will involve IoT devices2. The GCC is increasingly prone to IoT attacks, with 18.45% of public-facing hosts in the UAE alone potentially vulnerable to such attacks, according to the report.

“IoT devices are the weak link in the smart city chain,” continues Knight. “It is imperative that organisations and individual end-users recognise this potential vulnerability and take prudent steps to secure their networks and protect themselves from cyberattacks.”

Key highlights

  • The UAE is hit by an average of 304 attacks per day, the highest in the GCC
  • Over 42,500 IP cameras are potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks in the GCC
  • Nearly 8,000 digital video recorders (DVRs) in the region are openly exposed to an outside network
  • 45% of public-facing hosts in the UAE alone potentially vulnerable to attacks 

Case study: Expo 2020 Dubai

A particular focus of the report is Expo Dubai 2020, which demonstrates the potential of smart city technology for future smart cities around the world. As one of the most interconnected and technologically advanced World Expos ever held, Expo 2020 will replicate similar logistical and cybersecurity challenges to those of a smart city, but within a compressed timeframe. As Expo 2020’s Official Cyber Security Provider, Digital14 will oversee the cybersecurity of the event’s digital platform and safeguard the digital experience of its visitors and participants.

“As with any global mega-event, cybersecurity is critical to deliver a safe, secure and successful Expo 2020 – the first-ever World Expo staged in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia,” said Eman Al Awadhi, Vice President, Cyber Security & Resilience, Innovation and Future Technologies, Expo 2020 Dubai. “Digital14 is committed to ensuring Expo 2020 is protected through a combination of innovative cybersecurity solutions, ground-breaking initiatives and ongoing services that secure new technologies and support cross-partner flexibility and functionality with a robust Security Operations Centre. With millions of visitors expected throughout Expo 2020’s six-month run, Digital14 will also seek to balance local and international best practice and regulations in data privacy and to enable compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – ensuring the safety and privacy of Expo visitors’ data.”

Recommendations for UAE organisations 

With the UAE embracing smart city technologies and taking a leadership role in this field, it is no surprise that the country takes the regional top spot in the Global Connectivity Index. Expecting the growth of this sector to continue, the report proposes six actionable takeaways for organisations to defend themselves against new and evolving threats, including validating IoT devices before deployment, continuously monitoring all devices on the IoT network, and isolating IoT devices away from crucial and sensitive networks.

With the vast opportunities that smart cities bring, both in terms of improved business productivity and consumer experience, operators and device owners must be conscious of the potential vulnerabilities within their networks. Only by safeguarding their networks, can smart cities truly realise their promised potential.