After decades, the moment that mayors and government leaders feared so much came: the city of Chicago was hacked. The traffic lights do not work, the streets are in chaos. The city has no electricity and is in the hands of hackers.
This is the setting for Ubisoft’s video game Watch Dogs, in which players control a skilled hacker who can hack into the urban operating system that controls the city’s infrastructure.
But we are not talking about science fiction. It is set in a Chicago of the near future.
As cities become more and more dependent on the network and the ubiquitous sensors that control everything from traffic lights to garbage cans, could it really happen?
While doing research for the video game, Ubisoft Brand Director Thomas Geffroyd was amazed at how easy it was to hack into a city.
«We discovered that there are many systems that have been in the city for 20 or 30 years and that were installed without having in mind the issue of security,» he said.
«If you find a weak point you have access to everything, and it is really easy to hack the system, you just have to use a search engine that finds devices instead of web addresses, and then it is just a matter of using standard usernames and passwords to enter «he explained.
If he had wanted, Cesar Cerrudo could have caused great chaos.
This researcher discovered a major security flaw in the wireless connection that allows communication between traffic sensors and traffic lights: it was not encrypted.
These systems are installed in about 40 cities in the United States, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, in addition to other cities around the world.
The sensors send information about the traffic to boxes that control the traffic lights, to allow the times to be adjusted according to the flow of traffic.
«By exploiting the vulnerabilities that I found, an attacker could cause traffic jams. It is possible to make the traffic lights stay green for more or less time, stay red or not change,» warned Cerrudo.
«It is also possible to make electronic signs give false instructions or display wrong speed limits,» he said.
«These traffic problems could cause real damage,» he warned, from fatal accidents to blocking the activity of ambulances, firefighters or police who answer emergency calls.
The investigator says he disclosed his discovery to the system’s manufacturers and the department of homeland security but «failed to convince them that it was really an important issue.»
Since then the creators tried to improve the security of the system.
Lack of specialists
The more dependent on digital systems cities become, the greater the need for expert security personnel to test new systems and upgrade old ones.
«Right now we have a shortage of these types of people, but we are doing what we can to build capacity,» said Ed Skoudis, founder of Counter Hack, an organization that designs, builds and operates security simulations and challenges.
But there will probably be no shortage of staff willing to put the system to the test.
«From young hackers who do it because they can to states that want to bring a particular city to its knees, criminals who want to facilitate, for example, their escape through the city … there are many people who might want to hack into the systems of a city «, lists Ken Munro, ethical hacker and expert in industrial control systems known in English as Scada.
For now there is some consolation for the authorities.
«Cities are not that connected yet so the damage from these types of attacks is limited to localized problems, to young people charging at traffic lights,» says Munro.
But as more and more cities invest in sensors throughout the city and in control rooms where all the generated information reaches, the possibility of a hacker attack becomes a bigger problem.
«If someone manages to gain access to the headquarters of the information, the issue becomes really chilling there,» he concluded.
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