Smart city systems could become a nightmare for security

Cyber security expert Cesar Cerrudo once again is warning the IT security community on the risks related to deployment of flawed Smart city systems.

My readers know very well the cyber security expert Cesar Cerrudo that is author of several interesting studies on smart city systems, in August 2014 he presented a research on vulnerabilities affecting traffic light systems and explained hot to exploit them.

Cesar Cerrudo is very concerned by the approach to cyber security of many vendors, the expert sustains that in some case they are hindering security researchers from investigating smart city systems leaving these devices open to hacking attacks.

Cerrudo will launch a new alarm at the next RSA conference in San Francisco this week, exactly one year after the CTO at IOActive conducted a study (“An Emerging US (and World) Threat: Cities Wide Open to Cyber Attacks“) to investigate on the security of components within control systems for traffic lights and electronic signs in different cities around the world.

The study revealed an alarming situation, many devices were vulnerable to a number of cyber attacks, for example spreading a malware within a network of similar systems.

Traffic lights and electronic signs are controlled by automated systems that exactly as any other smart devices could be hacked. Cerrudo analyzed the architecture of traffic lights deployed in many countries, including the United States, the U.K., Australia, China, and Canada.

Cerrudo explained that vendors don’t want their kit tested for obvious reasons, a situation that no more acceptable. Smart city systems are enlarging our surface of attack, the different components of these smart are very complex environments and their integration with legacy systems could be very insidious. The problems are the same for every object belonging to the internet of things (IoT) devices that in the majority of cases the lack of security by design.

“In our research at IOActive Labs, we constantly find very vulnerable technology being used … for critical infrastructure without any security testing,” Cerrudo explains. “Technology vendors impede security research: New systems and devices used by smart cities are difficult to acquire by the security research community – most are expensive and are usually only sold to governments or specific companies, making it difficult for systems to be rigorously tested.”

Smart city systems are difficult to update because they are designed without considering security requirements, patch management results very hard to do under these conditions.


The expert pointed out the level of coupling of different smart city systems, a cyber attack one of these components could propagate to other devices causing a dangerous and unpredictable “domino effect.”

He added that “a simple problem can have a large impact due to interdependencies and associated chain reactions [which] highlights the need for threat modelling.”

Many vendors totally ignored pillars of security for their devices and the worst aspect is that don’t invest in technology to harden their systems despite the numerous alert triggered by the security community.

“For instance, many vendors don’t object to giving full privileged access to a device or system to anyone who is on a local network, because they think of the internal network as safe. However, if an attacker accesses the network, he can easily fully compromise available devices and systems,” said Cerrudo.

The findings of a recent study published by Veracode, titled “The Internet of Things: Security Research Study“, confirm that the principal problem related to the security is represented by the lack of a proper security posture.

The researchers tested a number of always-on consumer IoT devices to evaluate the level of security they implement and the risks for the users in term of privacy and security.

The experts focused their analysis on the security offered by devices that have a significant capability to interact with the physical environment around them (e.g., hardware sensors) or peer devices. The results are disconcerting, the design of the devices put consumers at risk for a cyber attack or a physical intrusion. All but one device were affected by serious vulnerabilities across the categories analyzed.

According to Cerrudo, vendors of smart city systems don’t implement principal security features neither they test correctly their devices before put them on the market. The result is that flawed devices are in our smart city and data they manage lack of proper protection.

Cerrudo is also critical with Computer Emergency Response Teams that don’t consider these security issues properly.

It’s time to consider the security of smart city systems a primary goal for a national cyber strategy to avoid serious problems.

Pierluigi Paganini

Smart city systems could become a nightmare for security

April 23, 2015

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