Cybersecurity and the IoT Part I: Cities Experience the New Age of Public Safety

November 7, 2019

By Alia Hoyt

For all its incredible capabilities, technology can also cause sticky situations for cities, particularly in public safety departments.

Phone unlocks door
Using your phone to unlock a door or turn on lights is an example of the Internet of Things.
On one hand, well-armed hackers can do serious virtual damage, but similar savvy advancements are what’s propelling the internet of things (IoT) movement to make Georgia’s cities more efficient and productive. Crime that can be seen and physically experienced is still a definite public safety concern, but criminals are increasingly moving into invisible digital territory and causing damage on departments specifically designed to keep people safe.

Just ask Doug Schad, detective and IT supervisor for the Lawrenceville Police Department (LPD), which was hit earlier this year by a ransomware attack that took the department completely offline for nearly a month, leaving them without access to email and necessary files.

“Before, our network was designed to get us up and running and no one thought about security,” he said of the outdated system that they were in the process of upgrading at the time of the attack.

Hacker keyboard
The new system was but one step in a series to prevent something similar from happening again. To fight back against the attackers (who never received a dime of taxpayer money), Schad and his team brought cybersecurity experts in to identify weaknesses, strengthen security and take measures to limit potential damage in the future. Implementing “zones” where different types of information is stored has been a key addition to the virtual armory.

“If one zone is corrupted, we can rebuild, but it doesn’t corrupt the entire network,” he said.

Indeed, prevention should be the priority, but budget limitations often cause government agencies to adopt an attitude of, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Schad said. “A lot of times you won’t know if it’s truly broken— we didn’t,” he said.

To prevent cities from similar catastrophe, Schad recommends making sure that security functions are completely up to date and hiring a firm to identify vulnerable areas.

Smart City
In a world of countless connected devices, the Internet of Things is all around us.
“You can watch your firewall and see how many times your network is being scanned and looked into,” he said, noting that the threat is virtually constant. “All it takes is that one time, at that small little spot.”
The human element is more difficult to control, but steps can be taken to minimize potential problems. The LPD crisis began when an employee opened a ransomware file marked “Invoice,” which in turn triggered the unfortunate chain of events. To prevent similar glitches, now every email opens in a protective space, as does every attachment.

Above all else, Schad implores cities to resist the urge to be complacent, as cyber criminals are innovative and constantly evolving their tactics and tools.

“It’s crucial for agencies and businesses to make sure they are fighting today’s crime, not crime from 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.

This is the first part of a two-part series on cybersecurity and the Internet of Things. To read the second part, "Cities Work Smarter Using the Internet of Things," click here.

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