New York City Launches First-Ever Cybersecurity Initiative to Fight Hackers

By 2020, 30 percent of all cyberattacks will be mobile-based.

New York City launched its first-ever cybersecurity initiative. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

New York City has launched its first-ever cybersecurity initiative to protect New Yorkers online from potential hacking and suspicious activities.

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The new initiative, called NYC Secure, will include a free city-sponsored smartphone protection app that will issue warnings to users when suspicious activity is detected on their phones, as well as new protections for the city’s public Wi-Fi networks—both of which are coming this summer.

In 2017, the city created the NYC Cyber Command, which oversees the city’s cyber defense efforts, working with more than 100 city agencies. The initiative is expected to cost $5 million.

“It’s become a deep national concern, a concern that everyone we used to believe was private may not be anymore,” de Blasio told reporters at Civic Hall, an innovation center for civic tech innovators in Manhattan, on Thursday afternoon. “So the positives and the possibilities of life online exemplified by the good work that happens at Civic Hall have to be juxtaposed against the new challenges and dangers.”

He said that while the city has seen record-low levels of crime, it has to make sure that the same principle is being applied to the internet in the era of technology.

“We’re the safest big city in America, and now we have to extend that concept to the lives of our people in terms of everything that they do online,” de Blasio continued. “We can’t be the safest big city in America if New Yorkers are not safe online.”

The announcement comes as Atlanta deals with a recent ransomeware attack on its computer systems and amid an ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In early 2017, mobile phones constituted 50 percent of web traffic, and the average American user spends more than five hours a day on their smartphone, according to the de Blasio administration.

And Gartner—which provides research and guidance for information technology-related issues—estimates that by 2020, 30 percent of all cyberattacks will be mobile-based.

As part of the free app, users will receive recommendations as to steps they can take to safeguard themselves, including disconnecting from a malicious Wi-Fi network, navigating away from a site that is compromised or removing a malicious app. The app will not be able to take actions on the phone on its own and will not access any personally identifiable information or collect or send out any private data.

The app will not collect data from the phone or assess it externally in the cloud, a move that would see users give up privacy of their data in order to secure their devices.

In addition to the new app, the city will reinforce its own Wi-Fi networks by protecting users surfing the internet on city guest wireless networks from downloading malicious software such as ransomware or accessing phishing sites that try to deceive users into giving sensitive information like usernames, passwords or credit card details.

The technology also defends browsing sessions without using or storing any personally identifiable information.

NYC Cyber Command has mandated that the technology be distributed across all “guest” and public Wi-Fi networks given by city agencies and related entities by the end of the year.

The de Blasio administration said that 18 agencies and offices are already using the protection for their internal networks, while the rest of the internal networks will carry it out by the end of 2018. The technology will also be deployed on the LinkNYC network, which has 1,400 free Wi-Fi kiosks around the the city and millions of users.

Geoff Brown, citywide chief information security officer and head of the NYC Cyber Command, said the city is looking to prioritize New Yorkers’ privacy, noting that most Wi-Fi networks do not have the level of security that the city is looking to provide.

“We believe security does not need to come at the cost of the public’s privacy,” Brown said. “We are the first city in the world to make this kind of commitment and provide such digital protection services to the public.”

Manhattan Councilman Ben Kallos, who is also a computer programmer, said the new initiative is “incredibly welcome” in his books. He maintained the necessity of protecting residents, businesses and government’s privacy as well as ensuring their safety.

“We do need to keep our residents safe in the physical world but now so much of what we do is tied to the online world,” Kallos said.

New York City Launches First-Ever Cybersecurity Initiative to Fight Hackers