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Photo: City of Bilbao

Bilbao recruits residents in the fight against cybercrime

24 June 2021

by Sarah Wray

As the pandemic has forced more services and activities online, opportunistic cyber-criminals and increasingly sophisticated scammers have followed.

Experts say cyber-threats have soared during the crisis, with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in the UK, for example, reporting a fifteen-fold increase in the number of scams removed from the internet in the last year.

In response to these trends, Bilbao in Spain is embarking on a project using its municipal Wi-Fi network to raise awareness about cybersecurity risks and co-creating training with residents to mitigate them.

The goal is to test and prove the approach in Bilbao, before scaling it to other cities worldwide.

“This initiative aims to address the digital empowerment of our citizens by providing them with the means to protect themselves in the online world,” Mayor of Bilbao, Juan Mari Aburto, told Cities Today.

The project is one of 50 finalists in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2021 Global Mayors Challenge, which is this time focused on the best urban innovations emerging from the pandemic. Bloomberg said that Bilbao’s idea was selected “because it represents an emerging understanding that, as cities increase residents’ digital access, they must also protect that access and, in doing so, build trust.”

Bilbao’s project is in the Health and Wellbeing category of the Bloomberg Challenge, further reflecting the growing recognition that there is a duty to protect people from digital harms as well as physical ones.

Co-creation

Bilbao City Council’s free Wi-Fi is used daily by more than 100,000 people, which is almost a third of the population.

“Thanks to this, it has anonymous metadata of the connections,” Aburto said. “A percentage of mobile devices have, without knowing it, installed some kind of malicious software or are visiting dangerous places.”

While the municipal Wi-Fi network automatically blocks detected malware, there is typically no feedback loop with device-owners. The new project will create mechanisms to identify and block threats detected via the network and then inform the affected person that there is a virus, Trojan or ransomware installed on their device, and what to do next.

This will be complemented by training about online risks and cybersecurity protections, which residents will help to design.

“The entire communication and co-creation strategy with citizens is currently being designed and will be tested over the coming months,” Aburto commented. “Broadly speaking, we can say that it will be similar to what the police would do in the event of theft in the physical world.”

The mayor said the aim is to help as many people as possible participate by taking into account the diversity and needs of each community, such as young people and older residents.

“It will be crucial to count on citizen participation to co-create the tool at the beginning of the project,” he said. “This will be a differential factor for its implementation.”

The city will partner with the Basque Cybersecurity Centre, technology companies, security agencies, training centres, associations and more to reach more people.

Eyes on the prize

Along with the other finalist cities, Bilbao is going through a four-month testing phase to refine the idea with technical assistance from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Fifteen of the 50 cities will ultimately win US$1 million each and multi-year support to implement and scale their idea.

Regardless of the outcome, cybersecurity is a priority for Bilbao.

“Incorporating safety by design is a principle of our smart city strategy,” said Aburto. “Therefore, a pilot and possible expansion is part of the city government’s commitment.”

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