Earlier this year, many residents in Hawaii were thrown into a temporary state of panic following an emergency alert on their mobile devices warning about an incoming ballistic missile.
The warning turned out to be the result of human error. But new research from IBM X-Force Red and Threatcare shows it would take little in the future for cyberattackers to deliberately cause widespread panic by triggering false alerts about catastrophic events, such as floods and radiation exposure.
Security researchers from the two firms recently tested multiple so-called smart city products deployed in a growing number of cities for uses like traffic management, monitoring air quality, and disaster detection and response.
In this case, the tested systems fell into three broad categories: industrial IoT, intelligent transportation systems, and disaster management devices. The products included those used for warning planners about water levels in dams, radiation levels near nuclear plants, and traffic conditions on highways.
The exercise unearthed 17 zero-day vulnerabilities, eight of them critical, in four smart city products from three vendors — Libelium, Echelon, and Battelle. Using common search engines like Shodan and Censys, the IBM and Threatcare researchers were able to discover between dozens and hundreds of these vulnerable devices exposed to Internet access.
With relatively little effort, they were also able to determine, in many cases, the entities using the devices and the purpose for which they were using it. For instance, they were able to identify an entity in Europe using smart devices to monitor for radiation levels and a major US city using smart sensors to keep track of traffic conditions. The research discovered the vulnerable devices deployed across major US and European cities and in other regions of the world.
All three vendors have since patched the vulnerabilities or issued software updates, and so have the entities that were identified as using the vulnerable products.
In a report this week, Daniel Crowley, research director of IBM's X-Force Red, described the results as "disturbing."
"According to our logical deductions, if someone, supervillain or not, were to abuse vulnerabilities like the ones we documented in smart city systems, the effects could range from inconvenient to catastrophic," he said.
The researchers, for instance, found that an attacker could use vulnerabilities of the sort identified in their report to manipulate water sensors in such a manner as to report flooding in an area when there is none. More dangerously, the attacker could also manipulate the sensors and silence warnings of an actual flood event causing by natural or human causes.
Similarly, the researchers found that attackers could exploit the vulnerabilities to trigger a false radiation alarm in areas surrounding a nuclear plant. "The resulting panic among civilians would be heightened due to the relatively invisible nature of radiation and the difficulty in confirming danger," Crowley said.
Another scenario that presented itself during the research was of attackers manipulating remote traffic light sensors, causing traffic gridlock on a massive scale.
Troublingly, most of the vulnerabilities that IBM and Threatcare unearthed were of the easily discoverable kind, meaning the researchers had to put little effort into finding them. "While we were prepared to dig deep to find vulnerabilities, our initial testing yielded some of the most common security issues," Crowely said.
Examples included default passwords, hardcoded admin accounts, SQL injection errors, flaws that allowed authentication bypass, and plaintext passwords. The research showed that many smart cities are already exposed to threats that are well-understood and should have long ago been mitigated, he said.
The results of the IBM and Threatcare study are another confirmation of the security issues posed by the growing adoption of smart city technologies worldwide. Organizations such as Gartner have predicted that over the next few years, cities will connect many billions of devices to the Internet for a wide range of use cases, greatly expanding the attack surface in the process.
A global survey of smart city security issues by ISACA earlier this year showed many are especially concerned about attacks targeting energy and communication sectors. Sixty-seven percent said they believe that nation-state actors present the biggest threat to smart-city infrastructure, and only 15% consider cities to be well-equipped to deal with the threat. The survey also showed that a majority (55%) thought the national government is best-equipped to deal with smart city cybersecurity threats.