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How can Smart Cities assist Cybercriminals in extending their Botnets?

Can you guess most favorite device type for Botnet creators? It is not hard at all, it is Internet-of-Things. They are spreading out so quick and remain so vulnerable, that any other device can’t be so delicious for operators of Botnets.

In this era of information technology, the world has become a Cyberspace where everything is connected through the Internet. You might have observed that every day you hear about some advancement in the digital world. This is because as humans are evolving, so is technology.

Alongside, the attack infrastructure, attackers, and security paradigm have also evolved.

As a result of technological evolution, the digital world now has IoT-enabled devices. Layman's term for this tech is smart devices. These intelligent devices laid the foundation of IoT-based smart cities. The IoT botnets, their activities in smart cities, and their impact are discussed in this research article. Along with that, smart cities' role in expanding the attack infrastructure is examined.

You might not be aware of the above-mentioned terms yet or only heard of them once.

But don't worry, we are going through its complexity together.


Internet of Things – IoT and devices

IoT includes a network of physical objects --“things”—using embedded sensors interconnected through the Internet. These objects can collect, transmit and receive data or information. We call these devices IoT- devices or smart devices.

Variety of IoT-enabled devices are forming the Internet of Things environment

Image source – cleo.com

The above picture depicts that our everyday used objects are being controlled through mobile. Similarly, any entity can become part of IoT if it can connect to the Internet. For instance, if a cooling fan can be switched on/off with an app from your phone, that fan has become an IoT- enabled device.

There are three major types of IoT devices which include: Consumer, Industrial, and Enterprise.

All these three domains have different requirements, limitations, and challenges. One of the biggest challenges is securing the IoT infrastructure of these domains. Anything connected to the Internet is vulnerable and prone to attacks. IoT devices are highly vulnerable due to their nature of use and design. These devices can have a life-threatening impact on our lives if Cyber criminals gain access to exploit and manipulate their normal functioning.

Every year billion of new devices are becoming part of IoT infrastructure. According to a survey research paper (H. Arasteh et al., "IoT-based smart cities: A survey," 2016 IEEE 16th International Conference on Environment and Electrical Engineering (EEEIC)) published in 2016:

The number of interconnected devices surpassed the population in 2011. This trend was significantly growing as the number of interconnected devices was about 9 billion in 2012. They will reach 24 billion until 2020 and 30 billion by 2025 respectively. Based on the mentioned numbers, the IoT will definitely be one of the major resources of big data in future.

IoT and Smart City

A smart city uses IoT devices to collect and analyze the data of residents. The relevant information is extracted from this data. The city then uses this information to improve infrastructure, lifestyle, residential facilities, utilities, services, and much more. A smart city is equipped with various IoT devices, smart apps, and electronic elements employed by these devices or apps.

Now, Smart cities have become more innovative than ever. The reason behind this is the continuously increasing number of IoT devices. An increased number of devices produce more tremendous amount of data. Resultantly, smart cities become more intelligent.

Smart City concept uses different IoT application for good and well-being

Since the purpose of smart cities is to provide a quality lifestyle to their residents. Therefore, IoT and related technologies are used to achieve this Goal. Today, in our homes, the bulb to the main door, everything is IoT-enabled. This has made our day-to-day life a lot easier and hassle-free.

Programmer and tech writer Paul McFedries explains this thinking:

The city is a computer, the streetscape is the interface, you are the cursor, and your smartphone is the input device. This is the user-based, bottom-up version of the city-as-computer idea, but there’s also a top-down version, which is systems-based. It looks at urban systems such as transit, garbage, and water and wonders whether the city could be more efficient and better organized if these systems were “smart.“

World Smart Cities

Below are the world’s oldest and advanced smart cities. I will shed light on the practical applications of IoT in these cities. Let's look at how these cities are using IoT to improve the living standard of their inhabitants.

Firstly, let's discuss Los Angeles; Traffic has always been a major issue for decades. They used data from a wide range of magnetic road sensors and camera feed through a centralized monitoring system to control 4,500 traffic signals in the city. This helped them in ensuring the smooth flow of traffic by controlling traffic signals.

Now, moving to London, its smart parking project is in the testing phase. It will allow drivers to quickly locate empty parking slots. This will help them significantly lessen the city traffic congestion, save fuel for commuters. It will also have an environmental benefit. Since less fuel will burn, less harmful emissions will expose.

Lastly, In Copenhagen, 40% of residents commute by bike daily. Bike traffic influx at peak times was an issue. To cope with this problem, the city has started using road sensors to monitor the bike traffic flow in real-time. This data is being used to decide and allocate smooth flow bike routes using ML and AI algorithms.

This shows how IoT is helping to fasten the process of turning municipalities into smart cities and improving the quality of life.

Global Smart Cities Experience

City Experience
Amsterdam Decreasing the traffic, energy saving, and increasing the safety level
Barcelona Implementation of sensor technology, using the data analysis of traffic flows to design a novel bus network and the implementation of smart traffic
Stockholm Provide a universal fiber optic network across Stockholm
Santa Cruz Analyze the data of crimes to forecase the needs of police and maximize the presence of police in the required places

Smart Cities and Botnets

As I told you earlier, smart cities are equipped with IoT devices. IoT is a network of billions of devices interconnected through the Internet. Every year billion of new devices are becoming part of the infrastructure. Hence, Security or attack infrastructure is also expanding rapidly. This is not something astonishing because the advancement and security infrastructure are proportional.

With an increased number of devices, cyber junkies or hackers get a larger playing field and resources to exploit. Cybercriminals are also evolving with the technological evolution. They always manage to find a vulnerability in the new tech and then exploit it to gain financial benefits or ego-boost.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term Botnet, it is a network of exploited or hijacked devices. Botnet master or controller can use your device to carry out different attacks, including phishing and Distributed-denial of Service attack (DDoS). Botnet helps the attacker conduct attacks at a mass scale such as Information theft, server crashing, malware spreading, and cryptocurrency scams.

Basic stages of building a botnet

  1. Information gathering and exploiting a vulnerability.
  2. Infecting the device with malware and taking control.
  3. Activating the bot to carry out massive attacks.

How a Botnet works explained in 4 steps

Image source –  emsisoft.com

Botnet Candidates

Any device or object which can connect to the Internet is the potential candidate for the Botnet. The standard devices hijacker’s sweet spot include PCs, Mobile devices, Network hardware, and IoT devices.

Botnet activities in IoT-based Smart Cities

IoT botnets have gained popularity among the community due to the poor security design of these embedded devices. Designer’s neglected the security feature and architecture of devices. Recently, a large number of IoT botnets have emerged, which are a severe threat to infrastructure.

Unfortunately, this threat or vulnerability was not realized until the Mirai attack in 2016. The security community needs to do a lot more work in this domain as it requires the hour. Otherwise, DDos attacks would become the new normal. This new normal will have a destructive and life-threatening impact on the IoT ecosystem.

A specific and relatable example of this subject is the Mirai family of Botnets. It targets the everyday devices used at our homes, such as internet routers, IP Cams, printers, etc. These botnets infect other devices in their close proximity and spread malware. Finally, this family Is used to carry out massive attacks, including DDoS against target servers. Which is their native attribute.

Since billions of new IoT-enabled devices are being added to the ecosystem yearly. The highly vulnerable nature of these devices is a jackpot for cybercriminals. They are increasing their network of bots at a rapid pace. Unintentionally, Smart cities are also helping them in their evil intentions because these cities rely on an IoT-enabled ecosystem.

In 2018, malware and botnets comprised the vast majority of threats and successful attacks against the IoT.


UAE Security Survey

Open-source research to analyze active threats to the UAE-smart city was conducted by Digital14. Public devices facing the Internet were examined. It observed recent IoT attacks on compromised machines in the region.

Compared with other GCC members, the UAE is more prone to IoT attacks because it has many public-exposed devices that are a potential candidate for Botnet. The rapid development of the UAE- smart city will further increase the risk.

Since UAE has a large number of vulnerable IP devices and networks. Therefore, it is now a hot target for botnet controllers to expand their wings.

Examination reveals that UAE is hit by approx. 304 IoT attacks per day. These attacks also result in an expansion of botnets

Image source –  digital14.com


All in all, this was a research article on the subject of how IoT-enabled ecosystems and smart cities are a safe haven for Cyber Criminals.

Security researchers and designers must work together to devise policies for safe and secure IoT infrastructure. This is the need of the hour because these vulnerabilities in the system would have devastating effects on mankind. Cyber attacks on Smart Cities infrastructure could lead not only to data theft but a life loss as well.

After reading this article, I hope you will get a better understanding of the security threats for expanding Smart Cities and IoT in our life.

Please feel free to comment below your questions and feedback. I would love to answer them.

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