At this point in time, we are often surrounded by technology everywhere we go. Despite the fact that we often don’t even realize it or take it as something completely normal. We have computer systems connected to public networks and the trend of smart cities only accelerating technological development. However, with technological developments comes along vulnerability and risks. Due to the increase in technology cities have become more vulnerable to hacking and cyber attacks.

Why Smart Cities are Important

By transforming ¨dumb¨ cities into smart cities, local governments need to take many things into consideration. The implementation of smart city projects brings along worries about data, security and the infrastructure of the city. This in its own turn is a new worry for local governments as these factors didn’t play a big role in the implementation of technology.

However, the change from ¨dumb¨ cities into smart cities is necessary. This comes due to the fact that smart cities make up for more efficient cities. With the implementation of smart city technologies, local governments are able to face problems such as roadway congestion, waste disposal systems and find ways to avoid energy and water wastage. According to Tom Cross of Drawbridge Networks:

¨If your trash knows when it’s full you can focus trash collection when and where it needs to be collected. If you have sensor based lights you don’t have to have them on all night long, only when people are there. You can reduce light pollution and energy consumption. These may seem like small things, but when you think of something as big as a city, these consequences can add up.¨

Hacking Risks Experienced by Smart Cities

The concept of smart cities is relatively new and therefore sometimes cities still need to find their balance. On one hand, they work with legacy systems that have been in operation for a long time and often combine this with cutting edge technology that hasn’t been completely figured out but has rapidly been adopted by the city.

Having your city connected to the internet brings its own type of risks. Therefore, cyber security has gained more important for local governments over the past few years. Smart cities are continuously exposed to hacking risks, especially when they don’t protect their systems properly. Over the past few years, many cities have experienced the added risks of cyber attacks. Many smart systems, have been hacked over the past few years. This mostly due to the fact that this concept was new and local governments were not yet completely aware of how to protect their cities against it.

Researchers Hack into Michigan’s Traffic Lights

To have a better insight into the security measures of their city, researchers at the University of Michigan hacked the city’s traffic light system. The team was led by the University of Michigan’s scientist J.Alex Halderman. Furthermore, the team decided to hack into nearly 100 wirelessly networked traffic lights. With this hack, the team aimed to highlight security issues that were more likely to pervade networked traffic infrastructure around the country. By hacking into the traffic light system, the team was able to find three major weaknesses. In fact, the team found that the three major weaknesses were the following:

  • Unencrypted wireless connections
  • The use of default usernames and passwords that can easily be found online
  • Debugging port that is easy to attack

According to the researcher’s report:

“The vulnerabilities we discover in the infrastructure are not a fault of any one device or design choice, but rather show a systemic lack of security consciousness.”

The road agency responsible for implementing this system in Michigan had never experienced serious computer security threats. However, the team thought it was worth the research especially due to the high possibility of cyber security threat in this sector. This is even more worrisome for transportation authorities and car makers as they try new technologies. The used wireless networked traffic light system is composed of four key components. This system makes use of sensors that detect cars, controllers that use sensor data to control the lights at intersections, radios for wireless communication among intersections and malfunction management units (MMUs).

During their research, the team at the University of Michigan found out that anyone with a computer that can communicate at the same frequency as the intersection radios could have access to the entire unencrypted network. Therefore, it has been proven to be relatively easy for hackers to have access to the whole city’s traffic network.

After gaining control over the system, the researchers were able to turn all the lights red or alter the timing of neighboring intersections. Furthermore, they were also able to trigger light’s MMus by attempting invalid configurations.


The use of new types of technology and technology advancement among different sectors within a smart city bring along new threats to cities. Therefore, it is important that local governments take a step back and evaluate the needed adjustments to their own cyber security measures. This is very important, especially in a time where we are making more use of technology to facilitate the citizen’s daily life. Furthermore, the cyber security is also very important due to the high amounts of citizen data that is currently being collected by local governments. Not correctly securing this data can bring along many risks to the city’s inhabitants.