Cisco Canada Blog

The Security of Networked infrastructure and Intelligent Communities

January 10, 2014

This is the first of a short series of blogs on topics that continue to be raised in my travels and interactions with customers and stakeholders of intelligent communities. Very often, our discussions focus on cost and funding models, stakeholder engagement, energy and environmental matters, economic opportunity and growth, and security and privacy matters. As we see more and more communities as well as the infrastructure industry try to wrap their minds around the technology infusion into their daily operations; these and other topics are proving to be valid topics for discussion and focus of the most frequently asked questions.

Both myself, and pretty much everyone else interested in smart buildings and smart cities, have written about the impact the Internet of Everything will have on economic development, social innovation, and environmental sustainability. In a matter of years, we will find more than 50 billion smart objects able to communicate freely over what we know to be the Internet today.

Smart Cities Security Photo 2

This trend of converging people, process, data, and things on the Internet has led to an explosive growth of available bits and bytes that can – and will – be mined and put to good use to impact and improve our daily lives.

The reasons for embracing technology as a tool to help to redefine our communities and create new opportunities for all its constituents are ample, increasingly understood, and requires little debate.

However, when everything gets connected, and the phenomena of “big data” shapes how communities are run, how we consume services, and how everyone and everything communicates with one another, one starts to wonder if we’re heading to a world of “Skynet” or “WALL-E“.

So the question is: How do we prepare ourselves for a converged, hyper-connected world that depends on data and computers to run our lives?

Most of our previously applied defenses have been shattered over the past few years. From cyber crime and hackers taking over our identities (as in “Identity Thief“) to taking over the controls of our buildings (Google Australia); examples are numerous where the boundaries of security, privacy and cyber safety have been crossed. WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden have contributed to the exposure of our vulnerability. More than ever before, our data and our things’ data are available somewhere on the web. The examples that we hear about on a daily basis demonstrate a tremendous problem with ethics and question the dangers of living in a connected society.

I’m no security expert, but I see four distinct and complementary aspects that start to shape the context and how we can define security matters in intelligent communities.


In our digital world, the expectations of privacy seem to be shifting, especially amongst younger generations. Already, platforms like Facebook and Twitter expose an incredible amount of personal information and activity. It may be argued that over time, the whole notion of security and privacy will mean different things from the world we live in today. If we don’t care anymore that our information (and the information from our things) is accessible on the Internet, then maybe it becomes a lot less interesting to those that mean harm to mess around with it. This of course does not solve the fact that data from mission critical systems (our grid and water supply, for instance) can be accessed and tampered with, with profound impact on the security of our daily lives.

Ethics, Cyber-rules, and Law

Computers and technology are not inherently evil. It is people that are at the reigns of our networked world, and it is people that penetrate the Internet to extract information to do harm.

From a social perspective this is hard to change; but consequently we will need to see dramatic ongoing changes to the rules of conduct, and law and reinforcement of any violations. The world we live in is ever changing, and we subsequently need to be flexible and swift to create internationally governed rules that apply to all (including governments). Sure, it sounds naive to think that some new rules (which miraculously would be agreed upon by the international community and equally governed across all borders) will impact behavior and reduce or eradicate online misconduct. But just like there were no internationally accepted rules for driving our cars and infrastructure and regulations to govern it; we (governments and its constituents) will also need to think outside the box to radically create a new playing field.

Security on the Edge

Security starts at the edge, where data is collected before it gets sent over networks. The edge devices become smarter and security gets deeply embedded in them. Already we see biometrics security provide authentication to the source of the data that is provided and iris scans, facial recognition, and finger printing provide user-side security.  These technologies are become increasingly familiar to us and common to our interactions with organizations and governments.. And beyond high-end enterprise devices and systems used by border patrol, we now see similar capabilities made available in our consumer devices. The iPhone 5S, for instance, can be secured by a unique fingerprint.

Securing the Network

Although privacy expectations, ethics and cyber-rules, and increasing security on the edge is critical–all is for nothing when the billions of smart objects communicate with one another over unsecure networks. Security is one of the most important services your network provides. It needs to be considered, and designed from the ground up, when community networks and infrastructure are built out to support the billions of smart objects that are coming online in the years to come. For this reason, “good is good enough” networks won’t be good enough anymore.

Most security solutions today are at the perimeter of the network and look at your traffic as a ‘point in time’ and block all ‘known’ threats from entering your network. The problem we have today is that more and more of the threats we see have never been seen before, the issue becomes how do we protect ourselves not ‘if’ but ‘when’ the intruder make it past our defenses.  The answer is that we need to look at security as an ‘Attack Continuum’. Recently, Ahmed Etman wrote about this in relation to our acquisition of Sourcefire, so I will be brief in my explanation of the continuum.

BEFORE:  Gain visibility and context of what’s running on our network and build the defenses needed to reduce the attack surface.

DURING:  Have the ability to quickly identify and remediate. It’s critical that we have the tools in place to not only identify and block the attack but also the attackers. To detect these Advanced Cyber Threats requires security Big Data analytics (in the cloud), as well as advanced behavior analysis tools / artificial intelligence techniques.

AFTER:  Identify the impact of the attack, where the bad guys have been on your network and quickly remediate and update our defenses accordingly.

And yes, Cisco is the only company that has made each element of security part of the DNA of an end-to-end network infrastructure.

If we don’t build the plumbing right, we undoubtedly get leaks.

What are your thoughts about security and privacy in intelligent communities? Let us know in the comment section below.

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