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Smart City Control Rooms Become Coronavirus War Rooms

Grant Samms
May 08, 2020

Cybersecurity 2

In a dimly lit room in Varanasi, India, municipal workers fix their eyes on dozens of monitors displaying video feeds and sensor readouts. Similar sights exist in other Indian cities and cities in Singapore, South Korea, and China.

Smart city control rooms bring all the aspects of a sensing city onto a few dozen screens. Traffic patterns can be altered based on real-time sensor input and public safety feedback from computer vision systems can be monitored among other use cases. However, these focal points have transformed into something more urgent: COVID-19 war rooms.

In the era of lockdowns and social distancing, these same control rooms are being used to enforce public health measures. A control room in New Delhi is using GIS to map each individual case and the existing CCTV network to enforce social distancing in public spaces. New Delhi is also using LED message boards across the city to spread information about the public health response to residents.

Other smart cities in India are installing teams of health professionals in their control centers to advise the municipal COVID-19 response, and some are establishing special hotlines for advising those under quarantine. Some are using their CCTV and traffic sensor networks to optimize emergency response vehicle routing. Singapore is using a smartphone app to automate contact tracing, which can tell a person whether their mobile device has been near someone infected with the coronavirus.

Privacy Concerns Will Outlast the Virus

The use of surveillance technology to track COVID-19 has some worried for individual safety and privacy today and in the post-coronavirus world. Concern remains that measures like mobile phone contact tracing and facial recognition tracing will continue to be used by governments for other purposes after the coronavirus has faded. China and Russia have reportedly been utilizing public facial recognition to track those violating quarantine procedures, among other measures. Israel, Australia, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Czech Republic have all announced plans to use cell phone data in some way to track those suspected of carrying the coronavirus and the people they may have encountered.

The use of these technologies for fighting the virus introduces another front in the battle for when and how governments may be permitted to use surveillance technologies on their own citizenry. Some of the tools used to track COVID-19 in some parts of the world have been preemptively removed in other parts of the world. In May 2019, San Francisco became the first city in the US to ban the use of facial recognition systems based largely on concern for individual privacy. In January 2020, just before the start of the pandemic, the EU was considering the placement of a 5-year moratorium on facial recognition systems in public spaces.

Privacy advocates, who are concerned about possible manipulations of this crisis, remain greatly interested in whether these technologies are reconsidered going forward. The smart city is proving to be an adaptable asset in using technologies like cameras, sensors, and control rooms to enforce public health orders. Whether these measures cross the line of unacceptable intrusion and what forms they may take is an issue that cities will need to contend with as the coronavirus fades.