Alexa, dim the living room lights.” “Alexa, lock the back door.” “Alexa, order more deodorant.” Amazon’s Alexa devices are probably the most immediately visible (and nearly ubiquitous) example of what is called the Internet of Things (IoT). However, there is a rapidly growing adoption of IoT technologies—both hardware and software solutions—specifically designed to increase efficiency and effectiveness for police agencies large and small.
So-called Smart Cities technology ties together data-gathering devices from all manner of public services—from water systems to power, sanitation, street lighting, pedestrian traffic and public safety—in one massive database that can help administrators improve the efficiency and effectiveness of those entities.
IoT is integral to the way Smart Cities technology functions. Thanks to IoT-enabled devices constantly collecting data and feeding it into analytics platforms, officials can make better-informed decisions in improving a variety of services.
Technologists envision data inputs from ALPRs (on stationary mounts as well as police patrol vehicles), gunshot detection systems, traffic light cameras, surveillance cameras, in-car and body-worn police cameras, in-car systems like GPS and OnStar, railway switching stations and road crossings, as well as countless Internet-connected personal wrist watches, mobile phones, tablet computers, and myriad other devices, supplying emergency responders with critical public safety information. For example, areas prone to flash flooding could have data pouring in (no pun intended) from water-level detection systems so police can be alerted to aid victims attempting to escape the waters. They see cities lying near or on geological fault lines tied into the data collection networks operated by the United States Geological Survey. They also see potentially limitless possibilities—possibilities that come with several important caveats.
One such technologist is Morgan Wright, a former state trooper and detective for 18 years, and currently chief security advisor for SentinelOne, a California-based cybersecurity startup.
Wright believes that video surveillance cameras will be among the first devices to be tied into Smart Cities networks around the country. He thinks that other existing technologies such as ALPRs, traffic monitors, and other sensors will soon follow suit.
One IoT-capable technology ready to connect with Smart Cities platforms is the gunshot detection system form ShotSpotter, according to Sam Klepper, senior vice president of marketing and product strategy for ShotSpotter.
“We’ve got these sensors out there that are Internet-connected and delivering important data, in terms of a public safety benefit, by identifying the gunshots, where they are—where they’re located—in a very sophisticated way,” he explains.
Klepper adds that the company has already begun to work toward integration with the emerging Smart Cities platforms, but that the marketplace at large has not yet fully developed.
“We’ve had to modify our technology a little bit, to kind of work properly. There are some very technical things around the microphones and the positioning and the wind filtering to make it work. But we’ve done that. The challenge for us is these larger platforms that promise a lot to a Smart City, beyond public safety, traffic, parking, those types of things, pedestrian foot traffic. Those really haven’t taken off. We’re ready for that, but that’s not something that’s a significant part of our business today.”
Overcoming the Dangers and Doubts
Manufacturers of all kinds are working toward making their technologies already on the market and in use in public safety—everything from surveillance cameras, GPS systems, in-car-video cameras, ALPRs and other mobile data devices—IoT compatible. SentinelOne’s Wright says there are laudable elements to these goals, but there are also dangers to consider.
As was seen during the crisis caused when Russian hackers attacked one of the biggest oil pipelines in America, crippling nearly all of the Eastern Seaboard with skyrocketing gas prices in some places and all-out shortages in others, the Internet can be used by nefarious actors to cause substantial damage.
“The Internet of Things is great, but the more things you connect, the more vectors of attack you have,” Wright says. “Ransomware is the biggest threat facing public safety right now. So as you connect more things, we have to ask a fundamental philosophical question: ‘Just because we can connect something to the Internet, should we connect it?’”
Wright points to emerging technologies such as drones and their potential capability to gather data and the alarms that may sound as they become part of the fabric of the future of policing.
“Drones are one of the biggest things right—a hot topic with law enforcement and public safety,” Wright says. “They’ve got cameras that can what? Transmit live video.”
Consequently, Morgan advises agencies developing plans to plug in to Smart Cities networks to understand privacy rights concerns.
“The Internet of Things comes replete with a host of privacy issues that are very contentious right now,” Wright says.
“Out here in the national capital region, the use of facial recognition has been sidelined because Virginia would not renew a certain statute that allowed the use of it—and that’s part of the national capital region,” Wright says.
Klepper agrees. “There are technology issues and the whole idea of equal protection for all in the community. The trend right now is the community’s influence on the police practices. The technology that they use is only increasing, and so I think some of the winners are going to be companies that really promote the ethical use of their technology—that provide community protections. How can they improve the technology, their processes, their policies, their practices, so that there’s minimal risk of negative outcomes?
“With police, it’s all about protecting the community—they’re there to protect and serve. But with any technology, there’s some potential for harm to the community, so how do you balance that out? In the future I see more community protections built into the technology, and that being a part of the product development process.”
Indeed, many privacy rights advocates and organizations fear that once the use of IoT in police investigations becomes widespread, the danger of overreach is quite real, and there may not be an easy way for police officials and politicians to reel that overreach back in.
The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches andseizures.”
The operative word here is “unreasonable.” Given the fact that surveillance cameras are mounted practically everywhere—from commercial buildings and retail stores to home doorbell systems—any reasonable person must accept the reality that they are on camera at all times when outside their own home.
Consequently, any expectation of privacy in a public place is all but erased—and if those cameras are in some way accessed (or accessible) to law enforcement, that video can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings.
As additional Internet-connected devices become part of the Smart Cities ecosystem, there will surely be pushback—both from a public relations and a legal action standpoint—from privacy rights advocates.
Wright contends that it’s all a matter of balance, especially as agencies face “defund the police” efforts that leave vacancies among the ranks and diminished capabilities to deploy force-multiplying technologies like IoT-connected devices.
“There’s a trade-off because the wolf will come knocking at the door—it always does. When it does, people are going to say, ‘Why didn’t you do anything to stop it?’ and the response is going to be ‘Because all the tools we had you took them away from us—we’re flying blind out here.,’” Wright says.
“I see a curve—I see a shift, a pendulum shift,” Wright adds. “Right now it’s to one side. I think there will be incidents and things will happen that are going to bring that pendulum back. And what we have to do is get comfortable with the squishy middle, with the use of technology and all of these new devices. We’re in a period of change. But I think eventually, we’ll come back to the squishy middle.”
That’s where we are today. Where will we be 10 years from now?
A research report from GlobalData UK Ltd.—a firm that examines a variety of technologies and their impact on the changing global landscape—notes that “increased urbanization is already causing infrastructure headaches for cities which will only get worse. This is driving the creation of Smart Cities, a market that will be worth $833bn by 2030.”
That’s less than 10 years out.
For some context, technologies such as FirstNet, body-worn cameras, and Alexa—in widespread use today—for all practical intents and purposes didn’t exist 10 years ago.
If those things took less than a decade to come to market, is it not feasible that 10 years from now that Smart Cities technology and the Internet of Things will be far more advanced. If it can be imagined in the data gathering world, it most likely can eventually be done.
Wright says that police leaders should keep their eyes on the rapidly evolving realm of “wearable” devices.
“I think we’re going to see more things, especially around wearables—things that can track the safety and status of officers and first responders,” Wright says.
“I think things are going to be obviously more mobile-centric, things around the mobile device. I see the days of the old rugged laptop going away. I think things will be more mobile. I think we’re going to have to come with a reckoning that says, as we lose more officers, as we are not able to hire those, how will we deliberately apply technology to solve these huge mission problems?
According to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas. By 2050, about 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. It’s astonishing to note that the UN also predicts that as much as 60% of the land projected to become urban by 2030 “is yet to be built.”
It’s an undeniable truth that Smart Cities technology will be integrated into those new urban areas as they are built. It will also be added into cities that date back to ancient times. As urban areas continue to grow in population, infrastructure to support that growth will prominently feature the Internet of Things.
We’re headed—and headed quickly—into an entirely new world.
Police leaders of today need to diligently study what is presently available and avail themselves—cognitively and philosophically—for the inevitable arrival of technology that is now just a glint in the eyes of technologists and futurists.
As agencies begin to wade into the waters of this constantly emerging technology, police leaders need to be aware that there may be a riptide or a jagged reef lurking just beneath the surface of an otherwise placid-looking sea. The tidal wave of emerging technologies such as Internet of Things and Smart Cities is inevitably—and rapidly—approaching landfall in law enforcement.
Doug Wyllie is contributing web editor for POLICE.