Will modern smart cities become more intelligent, or just more vulnerable?

In a few weeks, one of the most anticipated games to come out this year, Ubisoft's "Watch Dogs," will finally be released. The game has attracted attention far outside of traditional game-playing circles because of the unique vision it presents of a smart city in the very near future, in this case Chicago.

John Breeden is the Technocrat columnist for FedScoop.

Greetings to all my fellow techies. In a few weeks, one of the most anticipated games to come out this year, Ubisoft’s “Watch Dogs,” will finally be released. The game has attracted attention far outside of traditional game-playing circles because of the unique vision it presents of a smart city in the very near future — in this case Chicago.

Protecting a city with massive numbers of surveillance cameras and automating as much of the infrastructure as possible is something that is starting to actually happen around the world. I’ve personally attended several digital city type conferences over the past few years and seen progress being made. London, for instance, a city already packed with government-controlled technology, has employed an army of sensors and systems to completely automate most tasks in the London Underground subway system. Thousands of sensors there now report directly into the cloud and in some cases can initiate tasks such as repair orders without human intervention.

It’s all part of the so-called Internet of Things whereby almost everything will have an IP address and some rudimentary intelligence and reporting capabilities, one of the main reasons the IPv4 addresses ran out, requiring the move to IPv6. The Internet of Things is expected to reach more than 50 billion devices by 2018, a growing trend where elevators, doors, cameras, cars and just about everything else will be tied together and networked in some way.


Cities in the United States are not far behind London in their smart cities efforts, and in some ways they’re actually ahead. In New York City for example, thousands of surveillance cameras have been pulled together with other sensors in a Domain Awareness System, which the city calls The Dashboard. The system works by networking camera feeds together with databases from things like arrest records, portable-radiation detectors, 911 call information, license-plate readers and other information the city regularly collects or monitors. It’s rumored that the system also employs, or at least is designed to work with, facial recognition technology so operators can scan people on the street to learn their identity and complete history. It would not be a great leap to think that computers could soon be doing that automatically while searching for potential threats.

The “Watch Dogs” game simply asks the question: What happens if an unauthorized person gains access to, and is able to secretly control, one of those smart city networks? To keep as close to reality as possible, Ubisoft brought in Vitaly Kamluk as a consultant. Kamluk is a well-known security expert from Kaspersky Lab, a firm that makes enterprise virus and malware protection software. Kamluk has also helped to uncover hacking rings and schemes before, so he knows his stuff.

One major difference between the game world and real life is that in the game, you can hack systems in a few seconds once you’ve got your backdoor virus in place. In reality, it can take weeks or months of analyzing code before catching a break in most cases, though that wouldn’t make for too fun of a game. Beyond that, Kamluk says many of the activities the player can perform in “Watch Dogs” are valid attacks already taking place, in some cases.

For example, players can hack into security and even home-based IP cameras, making almost any character in the game vulnerable to player snooping. If you’re reading this column on a laptop or a smartphone, there’s likely a camera pointed straight at your face. Do you really know if anyone is watching you? Just last week, a couple in Texas discovered a hacker had gotten access to their IP-based baby-monitoring system and was using it to scream obscenities and scare their child. The hacker apparently snooped around a bit by using the camera controls before he began his tirade. He knew the baby’s name from reading some objects in the room. Had he remained quiet, he’d probably still have control of their system, watching that family’s every move in secret.

The baby-monitor hacking is creepy, but ultimately just a nuisance type of attack. Far more dangerous, and perhaps deadly, would be what could happen if someone gained access to one of the systems that controls a smart city. Near the end of the London Underground video, the director describes the Underground network as being a single system able to connect thousands of devices and data streams across a rail network serving millions of people. Without a doubt, the system makes the subway and its trains more efficient, but that depends on who’s holding the keys.


“Watch Dogs” is a game, and as such it takes liberties with the truth for entertainment value. But as we recently found out with Heartbleed, even our most secure and relied upon security technologies can be vulnerable. It’s something that should probably be considered before we take humans completely out of the loop in the name of full computer automation.

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