Safe City: Beyond the usual suspects

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By Ayesha Khanna MAY 25, 2013 | The Straits Times

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word "security" means the "state of being free from danger or threat". Traditionally, civilians have relied on the police and military to protect them from the forces that threaten bodily harm and social harmony. These protections have taken on two forms: deterrence and punishment.

But are the traditional forms of security really effective in the 21st century?

Threats in the 21st century are complex and the perpetrators involved are not the usual suspects.

We live in a world where, according to the current cover of Wired Magazine (UK), criminals can hack into your DNA and directly target your organs; where two "lone wolves" acting on their own can set off horrifying devastation as they did last month at the Boston Marathon; where the blueprint of the Liberator gun is downloaded 100,000 times in one week and can be used to print guns on demand using 3-D printers; where a gang of cybercriminals can steal US$45 million (S$56 million) from ATMs from Russia to Canada without shedding a drop of blood, as they did recently; and where natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis increasingly wreak havoc.

Let's face it: It is a much more dangerous world made up of unprecedented threats coming from unknown elements. And the threat is not only from humans or nature; the physical infrastructure in cities, often poorly built in the developing world, is also creaking under the pressures of rapid urbanisation and overuse.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the terrible collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh on April 24, killing at least 1,127 people.

Who is supposed to protect us from these myriad dangers? How will they protect us?

In a complex and uncertain world, it is the right of citizens to demand that their governments be proactive in redefining what it means to be "safe and secure" in the 21st century, and to take the necessary steps to meet that expectation.

Fortunately, there are several technologies, which together with analytics and cooperation between multiple agencies, can help prevent and even predict some kinds of threats.

The most potent machinery in securing the smart city of the future is the sensor: an ever shrinking device that can measure a physical quantity, such as chemicals or the strength of a building, and convert it to a data signal that can be received, processed and analysed.

Your smartphone has numerous sensors in it that can detect everything from your location to how active you are (by measuring the speed of movement), while you will be able to stick on others like band aids that measure the humidity in your environment, your blood pressure and sugar levels, and even how stressed you really feel at that moment.

Thanks to Moore's Law, or the rate at which computing power is exponentially increasing even as its price is halving every 18 months, it is now possible for devices like your mobile cameras and sensors to become smaller and smaller while capturing and analysing larger and larger sets of data at minimal price.

When multiple agencies lay relevant sensor networks and share the data, then a city can begin to have a comprehensive citywide security infrastructure.

For example, dangerous chemicals or viruses put in buildings can be detected far earlier by sensors than by human senses, and alerts and details can be automatically dispatched to the police to evacuate the buildings, to hospitals to prepare quarantined rooms for people living in those buildings, and for crisis response management teams to begin searching the congruent areas for the source of the threat.

This multi-agency multi-pronged collaboration relies critically on sensor networks, data sharing and analytics and real-time response mechanisms.

There are many challenges to putting such a system in place: technological infrastructure, collaboration between agencies that have hitherto acted completely separately, the creation of an analytics layer that is able to combine different data streams and extract relevant information from it, and response procedures that are fast and effective.

Already, these factors are so daunting to most cities that very few can afford to take on such a mission. But there is another challenge as well, one that is underappreciated but which underscores the need to experiment thoughtfully before implementing such a security infrastructure.

This is the question of privacy and protecting the digital life and trail of citizens. When sensors and cameras, owned by private companies and public agencies, are constantly tracking us and our environments, how can we ensure that our privacy is respected (do you want the government to know what you watched on TV last night?), that our data is not sold (do you want your health insurance company to know every time you have a drink at a bar?) and worse, that statistical algorithms don't mistakenly tag us as criminals or terrorists (think of the law-abiding Harvard, Yale and Stanford educated Muslims who were stopped at US airports after 9/11 under the suspicion of terrorism)?

Some of this information you may be happily tweeting yourself, but that is your decision, and some of it you may decide to allow the government to monitor because you want your family to be safe, but this is also a decision you must make with your fellow citizens.

In the light of these challenges, cities like Madrid, Rio, New York, Mexico and Taipei are experimenting with different kinds of experimental initiatives for next-generation security models.

Mexico City, a crime-ridden mega-city of eight million residents, for example, has implemented a system of 8,000 video cameras, gun sensors, licence plate readers and aerial surveillance drones, which constantly monitor the streets of the city. Five command-and-control centres alert police and emergency responders like firemen in case of any unusual activity.

According to reports, crime in Mexico City has fallen and response time has increased significantly since the implementation of the system.

Singapore, too, is joining cities pioneering new types of security infrastructures enabled by technology, information and analytics. The city-state is starting a pilot project spearheaded by the Economic Development Board and the Ministry of Home Affairs. Its goal is to build the prototype infrastructure and processes that will meet complex and unpredictable threats in an effective manner.

The Safe City Test Bed project will see the city-state build a collaborative framework for agencies and private companies to gather and exchange data to improve security. By embracing technology as a force multiplier, the Singapore Government could optimise its scarce resources to better respond to a wide range of urban governance issues such as crime, traffic congestion and environmental concerns.

The Safe City project could also offer deep insights and lessons for other cities that wish to improve security, and in doing so, become more resilient and attract talent and capital to their shores.

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