3min. read

Building Secure Smart Cities in the Age of 5G and IoT

The term “Smart City” is a popular buzzword making the rounds in a world where pervasive connectivity through innovation in 5G and the internet of things, or IoT, is eagerly anticipated. “True” smart cities are set to come into reality in the not-too-distant future. The question today is: what makes a city “smart,” and how are 5G and IoT poised to play a role in this transformation?

What Makes a City Truly “Smart”?

Many definitions on the concept of the “smart city” abound. One that is all-encompassing and covers human, technological, and institutional perspectives is:

“A city is smart when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance.” 1

From a purely technological perspective, smart cities can be termed synonymous with digital cities, intelligent cities, wired cities, hybrid cities or information cities. Tech evangelists unequivocally believe that ubiquitous connectivity made possible with 5G and IoT will be the primary driver of the first “true” smart cities of the future.

Consider these IoT use case scenarios for smart cities:

  • Smart traffic solutions to control traffic flow
  • Smart parking solutions to manage empty or available parking spots in real time
  • Smart public transportation solutions to proactively manage punctuality and traffic
  • Smart utilities for remote monitoring, reliable metering, and accurate billing
  • Smart street lighting for automated and intuitive control of street lamps
  • Smart waste management for optimized collection scheduling
  • Smart environmental protection for real time monitoring of air, water and soil quality
  • Smart public safety for real time tracking and monitoring of hazardous situations

Broadly speaking, digital city ecosystems are designed to run on information and communication technology, or ICT, frameworks that connect vast neural networks of physical devices, electronic sensors, mobile devices, communication gateways, information technology systems and data centers that interwork to run a city’s infrastructure. Devices and sensors in the IoT-enabled ICT framework are tethered over a low-power wide area network, or LPWAN, such as narrowband IoT.

NB-IoT (or, narrowband internet of things) supports low-cost connectivity of IoT devices, objects, and sensors on a massive scale. It is the most suitable form of cellular connectivity for IoT devices and applications that require exceptionally widespread coverage with ultra-low power consumption.

While NB-IoT can be deployed from within an LTE carrier and as a stand-alone solution today, in the near future, 5G NR (new radio) will offer better operationality. This is because 5G will befittingly fulfill the requisites of speed, latency, connectivity, and capacity required to manage the volume of data generated from IoT devices. Numerous small-cell networks providing high data rate services and uninterrupted connectivity within the city’s wireless network infrastructure will be powered by 5G.

Realtime data generated from the connected IoT matrix is transmitted through cloud-delivered IoT applications specifically designed for the ICT framework. Advanced AI-driven analytics derived from this data then enable intelligent management of a city’s operations to enhance the many environmental, social, and regulatory aspects of urban life.

Security Challenges Abound

There is no question that the promise of 5G is pivotal to bringing the nascent vision of “true” smart cities from aspiration to actualization.The biggest challenge, however, is security. The city of San Francisco knows this all too well. In September 2016, cybercriminals managed to compromise almost one-quarter of the networks used by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and infect them with ransomware.

Broadly speaking, these security challenges come hand in hand with the vision of smart cities:


  1. Massive attack surface area: Due to their ever-growing volume, IoT devices in a smart city ecosystem can be complex to secure, with many more launch points for attacks. Weaponized with botnets, IoT devices become conduits for infiltrating a city’s critical infrastructure with malware.
  2. Data security challenges: Data generated from IoT devices is the primary impetus for a smart city’s operating model. Hackers can use compromised devices and sensors to gain unauthorized access to sensitive and confidential public data and subject it to tampering and interception in transit, causing severe data confidentiality, integrity, and availability challenges.
  3. Network and application uptime challenges: Weaponized IoT devices lend themselves as targets for launching massive signalling floods and volumetric distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attacks on the wireless network and cloud applications that constitute a smart city’s ICT framework. These attacks impair the network’s ability to deliver real messages to applications in the cloud. DDoS attacks can also be used to negatively impact applications that process and analyze smart city data by paralyzing them or making them entirely unresponsive.

Smart cities are the next big thing, and they’re going to take urban living to the next level. However, the interconnectivity in smart cities is both their greatest strength and greatest weakness.

To learn about Palo Alto Networks point of view on NB-IoT security, watch this video.

1 R. R. Berkel, A. & Singh, Prince & J. van Sinderen, M, “An Information Security Architecture for Smart Cities,” in Business Modeling and Software Design, 167–184.