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The “smart city” sounds like a digital utopia, a place where data eliminates first-world hassles, dangers and injustices. But there are some problems with smart cities. Smart-city technology continues to roll out in municipalities worldwide – everything from automated alerts about weather hazards and traffic issues to smart lighting and connected trash systems. However, like the rest of the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem, security is always a concern.

According to, researchers at IBM and Threatcare have found vulnerabilities in smart city devices, which are used for everything from traffic monitoring to radiation detection. This means hackers could potentially hijack the devices, either to create panic or to prevent the devices from detecting when a real emergency exists, says Daniel Crowley, research director at IBM X-Force Red, a security-testing unit.

“Attackers could manipulate water level sensor responses to report flooding in an area where there is none — creating panic, evacuations and destabilization,” Crowley said, adding that the same could be true for radiation monitors at nuclear power plants and similar critical infrastructure. “Conversely, attackers could silence flood sensors to prevent warning of an actual flood event, or other catastrophe…”. “I think the danger is that when you’re relying upon sensor data for safety reasons, and  that sensor data can be corrupted” continues Crowley.

The researchers say they found a total of 17 vulnerabilities across systems used in smart-city technology. To test the systems, the researchers began by dissecting firmware they were able to obtain online, then later acquired some of the systems after spotting potential vulnerabilities, says Jennifer Savage, a security researcher at Threatcare.

Some warnings systems have already been used by hackers, at least to cause mischief. Last year, a prankster set off emergency sirens across Dallas for more than 90 minutes, and hackers have previously hijacked TV emergency signals and tampered with digital road-warning signs.

The researchers advise agencies and companies implementing smart-sensor systems to restrict IP addresses permitted to connect to the devices and to safeguard passwords and digital keys used to gain access. They also recommended using standard security tools and hiring outside testers to verify that the systems are secure.

After all, unlike home-automation systems, people often have little direct control over what systems installed by their local governments could have an impact on their lives. “As smart cities become more common, the industry needs to re-examine the frameworks for these systems, to design and test them with security in mind from the start,” Crowley said.