The smartest city in the world is about to become even smarter, as Singapore builds its first smart digital district. The town will feature autonomous robots roaming the streets, AI-powered elevators, and smart lamp posts.

But as intelligent as these cities are, they too have their downsides. Being highly connected makes it more vulnerable to cyber threats, and many smart devices lack stringent security measures.

Adam Wu, Regional Solution Architect (OT) of Fortinet, shares about the risks that come with smart cities, and how governments and organisations can counter them.

The need for visibility

Smart cities are home to a wide array of smart devices and highly interconnected networks, but many do not understand the risks they pose, highlights Wu.

Such devices are often built to prioritise low cost, power consumption, and a small size. Consequently, security takes a backseat. Installing such devices creates a new avenue for cyber threats, compromising security, Wu explains.

This is where visibility over an organisation’s devices and network comes into play. “The first thing to do is to know what you have, because you can’t protect what you don’t know,” says Wu.

“Once they understand the risk, they can mitigate it and put in the cybersecurity tools to protect them and limit the exposure,” he adds.

For example, some smart devices are inherently vulnerable due to design or technical limitations. Being aware of this allows organisations to implement measures such as firewalls to cover these shortfalls.

How AI helps secure smart devices

It is not enough to just have visibility. “You need to take action,” says Wu. AI can help organisations do so more efficiently. It identifies cyber threats to help organisations take a predictive rather than reactive approach to cybersecurity, says Wu.

It does so by comparing data across different devices to detect anomalies. Correlating data across an organisation’s network gives higher visibility of what is happening when an attack comes, explains Wu.

AI also mitigates the cybersecurity labour crunch currently plaguing the industry by acting as a “virtual analyst” which can make decisions like a person, highlights Wu. It can analyse massive amounts of data rapidly to offload the work of IT teams, while improving efficiency and the speed of response to cyberthreats.

Fortinet uses AI in its security programmes to help smart cities secure these devices. Another way Fortinet plus the gaps in security is by controlling access to these devices.

They do so through a zero trust policy, where every smart device is authenticated and continuously monitored. This allows organisations to rapidly “identify and remediate problematic devices so they cannot infect or affect other devices or systems on the network”

In built security for networks

Smart devices aside, the highly connected nature of smart cities also leave them vulnerable to security breaches through their networks.

Fortinet helps organisations improve their cybersecurity by protecting everything from the devices, to the network and the cloud. “These products work together in what we call a security mesh architecture,” explains Wu.

For example, network connectivity and security are often two separate products. But Fortinet can provide organisations with wifi access points that come with inbuilt security programmes.

This not only guarantees that the network is secure, but also makes it more convenient for organisations as they need not manage multiple devices.

In Brazil, Fortinet helped the Salvador city government install highly secure Wi-Fi access points throughout the city. This allowed the city government to provide free Wi-Fi access to citizens and tourists alike.

A similar programme in Adelaide, South Australia, helped the City of Prospect to attract more young entrepreneurs and digital natives to set up shop in the city.

Cybersecurity in an age of 5G

“With the proliferation of 5G, comes the increase in device connectivity,” says Wu. This will expose organisations to an increased risk of cyber threats as more devices are online.

Governments can play a role in securing smart cities as 5G-enabled smart devices become prevalent. For example, the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore launched the Cybersecurity Labelling Scheme for consumer smart devices like smart locks or lights.

This scheme rates smart devices according to their level of cybersecurity provisions, which encourages manufacturers to create more secure products. However, such security rating schemes mean that new, innovative products will take longer to enter the market as more time is needed at the R&D stage, cautions Wu.

Governments can provide guidance on how to safeguard their existing devices, Wu suggests. Providing guidance gives organisations a clearer idea of how to use such smart devices and what possible security implications are.

For example, if a device is known to have a vulnerability, government guidelines can inform organisations of alternatives to secure the device. Fortinet’s security programmes, for instance, can detect intruders in a network and prevent them from entering even if the device itself is vulnerable.

Smart cities can go a long way in bettering citizen services with increased convenience, but their risks should not be overlooked. With the help of tech like AI, cybersecurity can become smarter alongside cities to ensure citizens remain protected from cyber threats.