Cities are easy prey for cybercriminals. Here’s how they can fight back

By Robert Muggah and Marc Goodman

Published in the World Economic Forum

Make no mistake: the world is in the early stages of a techno-war against city governments and urban infrastructure. And while some cities have bolstered their capabilities to patch their vulnerabilities, they are entirely unprepared for the scale of cyberthreats that are coming.

Digital strikes are already coming hard and fast. In 2018, a massive ransomware attack launched by Iranian hackers shuttered Atlanta’s city hall for five days. This, the largest cyber breach recorded by a US city, disrupted police services, the processing of court cases, payment of parking tickets, business licenses and water bills, and even the nation’s busiest airport. In Baltimore, ransomware attacks in 2018 and 2019 shut down most of the city’s servers and paralyzed its 911 emergency call centre. And it’s not just big US cities on the front-line. Hundreds of smaller ones have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoin ransoms to regain access to their own systems, including 22 towns in Texas last month.

The scope of the cyber threat to cities is becoming clearer. According to industry experts, more than 70 percent all reported ransomware attacks in the U.S. target state and local governments. At least 180 public safety call centers were also targeted in the last two years. Cyber criminals are deploying distributed denial of service attacks, ransomware and other off-the-shelf hacker tools to interrupt and burgle municipal networks. Their digital arsenals are sourced from the Deep Web and their weapons are fully automated, meaning attacks can run 24/7. The impacts of the cyber threat should not be taken lightly.

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