Feature: Urban surveillance and terrorism

Feature: Urban surveillance and terrorism

“We are witnessing a new generation of specialised mass notification and critical communications solutions coming to the fore that are designed to deliver targeted, geo-specific information in a joined-up way”

Recent events in the Austrian capital of Vienna have once again served to underscore the dangers posed by terrorist attacks in densely populated urban areas. Timothy Compston looks at how infrastructure powering smarter and safer cities and wider advances in security solutions can help authorities to protect and respond more effectively should the worst happen

On the 2 November 2020 on the eve of a national lockdown Austrian city of Vienna faced it’s worst terrorist ever incident when a rogue shooter claimed the lives of four people and wounded 23 more before special forces were able to shoot the gunman who was wearing a fake bomb vest and armed with a rifle, pistol, and machete, dead.

What happened in Vienna is far from being an isolated incident. Twelve years ago, coordinated shootings and bombings hit the Indian city of Mumbai resulting in over 160 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The Mumbai City Surveillance Project, one of the biggest in India, was part of the recommendations of the Pradhan Inquiry Commission which was appointed by the Maharashtra Government to the 26/11 terror strike.

Fast-forwarding to September 2013 and the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was targeted by four masked gunmen, with a subsequent siege and fire underlining the vulnerability of crowded places. Just two years later what transpired in Paris also cast a long shadow and helped to drive tougher anti-terrorism measures in Europe and beyond. What was most shocking about that Friday evening was the way that the assailants were able to maraud mercilessly targeting restaurants, those attending a rock concert at the Bataclan concert hall, and an international football match at France’s national stadium.

So, what can be done to shore-up protection across cities against ‘dynamic’ attacks, lone wolf incidents, and scenarios – like Nice, France – where vehicles are turned into weapons?

Joined-up thinking

Thankfully, the surge in demand for smart and safe city solutions is unlocking opportunities for joined up thinking whether that be fighting crime or terrorism. On the ground AI (Artificial Intelligence), biometrics, and video surveillance are now being brought together to deliver powerful, intelligent, solutions.

Looking specifically at projects in the Middle East, it is interesting to reflect on the announcement by Dubai Police that under a new AI network thousands of video surveillance cameras from Dubai government agencies are to provide a live feed to one central command centre. The Oyoon (eyes) initiative is designed to apply AI and facial recognition technologies to help spot crimes and incidents by analysing live video, with no human intervention, and to enable the police to track suspects across the city by uploading their image into a database. Apparently, the initiative is part of the Dubai 2021 Vision of a smart city.

When Dahua Technology – the video-centric IoT (Internet of Things) solution provider – launched its ‘Heart of City’ (HOC) strategy to overseas markets at Intersec 2019 it was keen to stress that the city management engine was built around a series of technological advances like IoT (Internet of Things), AI (Artificial Intelligence), and deep learning. Dahua went on to explain that, with HOC, it is looking at using AI cameras, facial recognition, and ANPR cameras to detect human faces and vehicle license plates and then trying to manage this for the police, for government entities, to improve the security levels of cities.

Hikvision too has its eye on the future of safe cities and reckons there are three phases, the first being basic city surveillance, the second resulting in an intelligent video system – with AI capabilities and applications – and then there is the most sophisticated, third phase, where the IoT data generated in the intelligent video system is fused with data from information networks. The advantage with phase three reckons Hikvision is the ability to offer ‘precise situational awareness around a city.’

Caught on camera

Focusing on the expanding footprint of body-worn cameras on police officers and other city employees the value of having ‘live’ access to these cameras during a major incident is starting to be recognised with vendors like Digital Barriers rolling out solutions to facilitate this. In the case of Digital Barriers this is in the form of EdgeVis Live, a video codec which originates from neural network research at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, that is said to provide real-time video streaming over bandwidth constrained or congested networks.

Still on the subject of cameras, multi-sensor and high resolution video surveillance models, such as Dahua’s panoramic 360 degree solution, have obvious benefits when there is a requirement to keep an eye on crowded scenes such as city squares, shopping malls, and sporting events, including eliminating problematic blind spots.

In terms of video analytics, an innovation called Tag and Track pioneered by Ipsotek over the past decade has moved the potential of video content analysis forward in environments like cities. As the name suggests Tag and Track can facilitate the tracking of multiple individuals inside a multi-camera network in real-time or retrospectively to understand the movements of ‘tagged’ individuals in forensic investigations. To achieve this Ipsotek’s analytics engine generates meta-data information for all tracked objects in a scene – whether that be people, vehicles, or other objects – and then they are constantly tracked.

Mass notification

For the authorities, the ability to communicate in an effective and timely manner with those in harm’s way is, undoubtedly, a critical consideration. Situations can develop extremely quickly and, in some cases, impact more than one location simultaneously, adding to the fear and confusion on the ground. In addition to employing social and more traditional media to reach the public and other stakeholders with their messages, we are witnessing a new generation of specialised mass notification and critical communications solutions coming to the fore that are designed to deliver targeted, geo-specific information in a joined-up way.

Interestingly, US-based Genasys- a leader in critical communication systems and solutions – has just announced $1.6 million in international orders for LRAD 450XL and LRAD 1000Xi acoustic hailing devices (AHDs) and Genasys 360XL public safety mass notification systems which can broadcast live or recorded messages. The LRAD systems are to be used in law enforcement and homeland security applications in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and South-eastern Europe.

Turning to the Genasys 360XL speaker arrays, these are for installation in an Asian city’s urban alert system to broadcast emergency warnings and public safety information. Commenting on the orders, Richard S. Danforth, ceo at Genasys, says: “In today’s escalated threat environment, Genasys mass notification systems and AHDs enhance public safety and homeland security. Our critical communications systems safely alert and warn, inform and direct, and save lives.”

Another approach that has gained traction over recent years, with mixed results, is the roll-out of specific smartphone applications or ‘apps’. In the lead-up to the Euro 2016 tournament in France, for example, a major concern was how to communicate safety and security messages should a terrorist-type situation develop. The solution in question was a free emergency app known as SAIP – which some dubbed ‘the terror app’ – whose origins can be traced to the Paris attacks the previous year.

A major test for SAIP came not at Euro 2016 itself but soon after when, on Bastille Day, a truck was driven into crowds in Nice. Unfortunately, according to media reports at the time, the app – which was designed to flash an ‘instant’ warning on a user’s mobile phone screen if an attack was close to their location failed, at the first hurdle, due to a technical issue. Given this reality many experts suggest that a multi-modal strategy is best so if one communication route fails others will still work.

Vehicles as weapons

Staying with Nice, while vehicle bombs (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs)) remain a clear and present danger for city security planners, another worrying element to emerge across the threat landscape is when extremists decide to employ a vehicle as a weapon (VAW) in crowded places with the intent to injure and kill as many people as possible with London (London Bridge), Berlin, Stockholm and Barcelona also having been in the firing line.

Consequently, more resources are being funnelled into rapidly deployable hostile vehicle mitigation measures that can be installed to ramp-up security for major events or when threat levels change. An example of the direction of travel here comes in the shape of Delta Scientific Corporation’s surface mounted MP5000 portable wedge barrier which has been rolled out to secure major city-centre political conventions in the US and for cities hosting global sporting events.

Sound solution

With attacks involving active shooters on the rise, and the potential for incidents to take place across multiple locations – like Christchurch, New Zealand, last year and Paris in November 2015 – coupled with tragedies such as the mass shooting of concert goers in Las Vegas by a lone gunman, it is not surprising that cities are turning to technologies that can help to distinguish gunshots from other sounds.

Drilling down to specific gunshot detection solutions, heading to Scandinavia it was reported in November 2017 that the police in Stockholm, Sweden, had been given permission by the County Administrative Board to deploy sound detectors (microphones) in trouble hotspots to help identify and alert officers about shootings, explosions, screams and glass breaking.

In terms of the leading options to cover city neighbourhoods, US vendor SST Inc. – a specialist in gunfire detection and location technology – has developed ShotSpotter which is now active in around 100 urban areas worldwide and has amassed the world’s largest audio database of gunshots with more than 12 million incidents reviewed. One version of the solution, ShotSpotter Flex, is helping law enforcement agencies in the US by directing police to the precise location of illegal gunfire incidents.

The company says that ShotSpotter Flex operates through multiple ‘collaborative’ acoustic sensors placed on buildings or lampposts throughout an area that activate when gunfire occurs outdoors. The sensors and software triangulate and pinpoint the precise location of each round fired in a matter of seconds. SST also has an Incident Review Centre (IRC) where an acoustic expert analyses the data and qualifies the incident before an alert is issued.