smart city cloud

A secure cloud architecture for smart cities

A blueprint released July 10 aims to help communities of all sizes and technical capabilities build smart cities based on a secure hybrid cloud architecture that supports confidentiality, access control, least privileges and protection of personally identifiable information (PII).  The architecture also serves as a cloud-based backup when things go awry.

“You know about the Baltimore ransomware attacks, you know about the Atlanta one, you know about the two Florida cities that just paid off in bitcoin their ransomware attackers,” said Lee McKnight, a professor at Syracuse University who oversees the Smart City and Community Challenge cloud privacy security rights inclusive architecture (SC3-cpSriA) action cluster’s work on secure cloud architecture. “All that is a result of essentially a combination of legacy systems from cities with limited budgets. The cities can’t afford the IT staff or numbers of a Google or an IBM or Amazon or Microsoft for securing cloud services," he said. "They’re always going to be more vulnerable because of their limited expertise and awareness.”

That doesn't have to be the case, he added. A secure cloud architecture can automate processes to increase security and compliance and minimize risk. “It minimizes the risk and treats all those legacy systems as honeypots,” McKnight said. “You don’t care if they’re attacked because you’ve got everything backed up to the cloud. Nothing worse than a day’s loss of data can ever happen because we’ve designed this properly.”

The idea was to build a framework for cloud services that facilitates city officials’ decisions about exactly what data and systems to protect and how, and how to restore data if a vulnerable system is attacked.  

The architecture conforms to standards such as the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) Cybersecurity and Privacy Advisory Committee guidelines, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, International Organization for Standardization standards and PCI.

The framework uses a three-tiered data and risk classification scheme: red for sensitive data such as PII, which is the most controlled and restricted; yellow for data that can be shared with controls and monitoring; and green for data that can be shared openly. The workflows applied to the data depend on their classification.

Next, officials assign a likelihood, impact and overall rating to each risk and put in place controls -- automated where possible -- to mitigate those risks.

In terms of privacy, officials can decide, based on data type, what legal and regulatory requirements exist around each, what security is required and how the collection or storage of the data could affect a resident’s privacy or security.

"Everybody needs to be thinking about privacy, security and data issues,” McKnight said.“I think this is something everybody can understand."

The first test of the architecture was the team’s application of it to a network of city-owned smart streetlights.  Syracuse, N.Y., is installing a network of LED streetlights that is expected to save the city millions each year from interconnected smart grid data access, reduced greenhouse emissions and increased safety.  It is also considering catch-basin monitoring and water metering projects as well as others involving  the ethics of artificial intelligence, facial recognition and machine learning.

The hypothesis is that a secure cloud architecture can facilitate smart cities’ use of such emerging technologies while minimizing risk to privacy and security, according to the blueprint. Other benefits of using a secure cloud infrastructure include reduced city operating costs, greater data transparency and product innovation, the report adds. The results in Syracuse will inform further development of the secure cloud architecture.

The blueprint is designed for “engineers, security experts, and IT analysts as well as finance and procurement specialists, marketing, innovation and development specialists, and educators and students of all ages and interests."  They aim to help smart city stakeholders "begin to speak the same language, and develop common methods and models for community education, self-protection, risk mitigation and … community or region-wide cloud privacy security and rights-inclusive architecture,” the report states.

After the city and other early users offer feedback from their early attempts to apply the framework to several smart city projects, the architecture can then be built into edgeware apps, decision tools and cloud training with support from vendors, such as those participating in the action cluster. That group includes Dell Technologies, IBM Red Hat and Microsoft. 

The team is presenting and demonstrating the secure cloud architecture this week at the GCTC SC3 Expo, hosted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Homeland Security.

“If we are properly architecting the services and applications with this default backup into the cloud built in, then you should also be cutting down many of the risk factors and, in particular, the way one infected account can take down a whole enterprise,” McKnight said. “That’s bad architecture. That shouldn’t be possible. That can be fixed at this architectural level.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected