As smart cities take shape, a key issue is security

Technology is the driving force behind the transformation we can see all around us. Every day, elements of our personal and business lives are touched by smart solutions in some shape or form and innovators are constantly pioneering new ideas to improve the way we live. Today we have smartphones, smart TVs, smart meters, smart cars and now smart cities.

A smart city uses digital technologies to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens. In layman’s terms, a smart city can only come to life by constantly sending and receiving critical business and personal data across various hubs and controls.

Services, such as intelligent transportation, connected health care, public safety and security, emergency services, waste management and smart grid metering can be connected to drive efficiency and real-time intelligence.

The UAE has joined a growing list of countries that are adopting smart solutions. The nation is fast adopting new technologies that connect and leverage the pillars of society-citizens, business, transportation, governance operations and practices and is investing heavily in turning this vision into reality.

In Dubai, the government is focused on its quest to join the smart city movement, spurred by the hosting of Expo 2020. A good example is the recently launched “Smart Palm” project by Dubai Municipality, that offers free Wi-Fi service with up to a range of 53 metres, sustaining up to 50 users at a time. It is expected that by the end of this year, there will be 100 Smart Palms across various locations. With this initiative, Dubai is making use of technology to move towards becoming a high-tech and ultra-efficient smart city.

In Abu Dhabi, Masdar City has spearheaded technology innovation to become one of the world’s first zero-carbon, car-free cities. So as the mass adoption of connected technologies continues to propel cities into the new smart era, it is both a remarkable feat and a frightening one. This is largely owing to high security concerns around smart cities, because of the sheer number of services, devices, businesses and citizens that become connected.

The main priorities for implementing a smart city are ensuring a watertight security strategy and establishing a regulatory framework that all vendors and government departments can adhere to.

If these are not developed in line with smart city building, the consequences could be damaging.

The UAE is all too aware of the growing number of cyber-criminals looking to target its businesses and citizens. This year’s Internet Security Threat Report from Symantec indicated a significant rise in the number of targeted attacks against the UAE, increasing from less than 1 per cent of global totals in 2013 to almost 5 per cent in 2014.

Given that the smart city experience involves systems and devices that are connected via various technologies, the amount of data generated by these systems can reach a considerable size. If these systems and devices are not secured, this can cause considerable damage as unprotected data and user information can be compromised with cyber-crime activity. If we think back to the smart traffic system implemented by Dubai’s RTA, then the reality is that without the appropriate safety mitigation measures in place, a criminal could potentially hack the programme remotely and feed incorrect data to manipulate the sensors, switching traffic signals from red to green across the grid, causing vehicles to collide and the entire road network to grind to a halt.

No system is impenetrable. If the UAE truly wants to be on the leading edge of smart technology, security has to be a part of the smart city vision and conversation. Regulatory bodies must ensure that the framework and data is being protected and frequent checks must be made to address any issues that arise. Working closely with security providers and consultants is also crucial as these experts have the in-depth knowledge required to create a smart city network that is well guarded.

The smart city vision is one of the most promising technological and urban developments in recent years, but cannot be built overnight. Creating a smart city that is as safe as it is functional is a challenging task.

Sandra Toms is vice president and curator of RSA Conference, which takes place in Abu Dhabi tomorrow and Thursday.

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