Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2019

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Smart city technology aims to make communities more secure, but does it encroach on privacy?

future car

As night falls and daylight gives way to the electric glow from the Strip, gunshots ring out in a valley neighborhood. Soon, Metro Police are receiving 911 calls from residents reporting that they’re hearing gunfire.

But where are the shots coming from?

In most cities, the answer to that question is all too often never answered. Callers only have a vague idea, making it difficult and often impossible for officers to find the scene and figure out what’s going on.

In two areas of Las Vegas, however, the future of such a response is happening today, and it’s worlds quicker and more precise.

The difference is smart communities technology, a fast-developing and potentially transformative segment of the tech world that promises to make cities safer, more efficient and more convenient.

Specifically in the case of gunshots, audio technology being tested at two sites in Las Vegas — one each in Metro’s Northeast and Southeast area commands — can pinpoint the location of gunfire, allowing police to immediately respond.

Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick said the system, created by the Newark, Calif-based company ShotSpotter, had yielded impressive results in the short time since it went online in November.

“We’ve confiscated some guns, we’ve made some arrests and we’ve been able to find some casings,” she said. “And that’s really the key — finding out where shots have been fired and who’s responsible for it.”

Kirkpatrick is among several Las Vegas Valley leaders who have become advocates for smart communiities technology and have put Southern Nevada on the leading edge of its development. A number of advances are being tested here, while officials also are working toward building a literal and figurative foundation for expansion of smart infrastructure. That work will include creating laws and policies aimed at addressing privacy concerns and establishing procedures to guard against the sharing of personal data, all the while maintaining protection of multijurisdictional networks against hacking and data theft.

To a person, the advocates say it’s crucial for Las Vegas to prepare. As with other areas of the technological revolution, smart communities advancements are coming, and they’re going to be transformational.

“I can tell you that all of the nieces and nephews in my family, and really everyone that I’ve talked to about this subject, they’re already using this kind of technology,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who has proposed legislation that would provide federal funding for testing and implementation of smart communities technology. “They’re already connected to the internet of things. So this is their expectation for the future, and it’s not going to go away. We’re in the technological age, and it’s going to continue to evolve because there’s a demand for it. And that demand is going to drive the use of this technology.

Las Vegas: A testing ground for tech

Set up like a startup

The potential applications of smart communities technology are broad, but today, development is largely taking place in transportation and public safety. In both areas, Las Vegas is a fertile development ground. Among the innovations being tested here are the following:

• A data system developed by the Israeli company WayCare Technologies that can give real-time predictions of situations where crashes and traffic jams are likely to happen.

• A system that uses GPS technology to report accidents in real time.

• The French startup Navya’s automated downtown shuttle vehicle.

• A Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I, for short) system from Audi that allows its cars to communicate with stoplights and lets drivers know how long they’ll be red.

• A crosswalk fitted with sensors to give traffic engineers data that can be used to prevent pedestrian accidents.

In Las Vegas, the streamlined structure of the region’s transportation oversight organizations has helped make it attractive to tech developers, said Tina Quigley, director of the Regional Transportation Commission.

The RTC is an umbrella organization whose board is made up of leaders from Clark County and the region’s municipalities, making it a one-stop shop for transportation issues. Quigley said companies can perform testing on a wide scale with minimal coordination, unlike other communities where various governments and transportation systems operate independently of each other. As she explained at this year’s Clean Energy Summit, launching Audi’s “Time to Green” vehicle-to-infrastructure test would have required the company to make 133 calls to various organizations that operate traffic lights in Los Angeles.

In Las Vegas, it took one call to the RTC.

At a recent summit of state and local transportation officials on smart communities technology, Quigley said tech company representatives told her they had “never found a region more set up like a startup than Southern Nevada.”

Quigley and other proponents say the safety applications for smart communities technology are wide-ranging and nearly endless. Traffic lights would alert pedestrians about an oncoming wrong-way driver, and flash alerts to the driver, as well. They could also be fitted with sensors to detect bicyclists and trigger light changes, saving cyclists from having to get off their bikes and press crosswalk buttons. Street lights could double as air quality monitors and shut themselves off when nobody was around, saving energy. Smart water meters can help officials locate and repair water leaks quickly.

Utility poles and traffic signals could be fitted with video or audio technology that would allow authorities to quickly pinpoint accidents or crimes.

Cars that communicate with infrastructure and each other could be alerted to the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists nearby.

Distracted drivers sitting at green lights could be given signals to get moving, or when drifting out of their lane, improving traffic flow and reducing accidents.

“Eighty to 90 percent of car crashes are caused by human error,” said David Swallow, senior director of engineering and technology for the RTC. “If you could reduce that significantly with this kind of technology, think of how many lives could be saved.”

Upgrading infrastructure for smart communities tech

In the same way that the human body couldn’t exist without its system of veins and arteries, smart communities technology relies on fiber optic networks to carry its lifeblood — the digital information that fuels it.

For Las Vegas, that translates to a healthy advantage in the development and implementation of the technology.

Years before concepts like cars that communicate went from the distant horizon to the testing stage, officials in Southern Nevada were laying the groundwork for them by building extra capacity into the region’s fiber optic system.

“We knew we didn’t need that much fiber capacity at the time, but we also knew that somewhere down the road, like in 2018, there would be a need or demand for that capacity,” said Regional Transportation Commission administrator Brian C. Hoeft.

Hoeft oversees the RTC’s Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation (FAST), which monitors and helps control traffic safety on the valley’s major roads through an interconnected system of cameras, monitors, message boards and other technology connected by the community’s fiber optics network. That system also connects the RTC and FAST to regional governments, including Clark County and local municipalities, which also are sites for smart communities technology development.

The high degree of connectivity has made Las Vegas attractive as a test site for technology developers and has helped pave the way for such developments as the downtown automated shuttle and driverless cars being operated for CES attendees last week.

“When we have a new project, we don’t have to go back out, dig up the streets and put in new fiber to support it,” Hoeft said. “We just need to say, ‘OK, you want to test something? Take some of the available capacity.’”

Another advantage for Las Vegas is the relative newness of the community’s infrastructure compared with older cities. The reason is academic: Connecting modern technology to equipment in outdated utilities, traffic controls and such is more difficult and expensive than linking it to newer systems.

Still, there’s work to be done to round out the connections. As Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick points out, some older neighborhoods in Las Vegas haven’t been connected to the fiber optics network.

“When those neighborhoods were built, fiber optics wasn’t thought about, let alone 4G fiber,” she said. “So as we’ve been moving forward, we’ve been working with (the Nevada Department of Transportation) to put those lines in place so that we’re staying upgraded and connected.”

Then there’s the uncertainty of how the recent repeal of net neutrality might affect Las Vegas. The repeal raised the possibility that internet service providers could block some content for users or begin charging for it, which could create extra fees or disruption of service that could inhibit the development of smart communities technology.

But Hoeft said that overall, Las Vegas’ system was sound. He likened the fiber optic network to a fuel line feeding various engines, which in his analogy were computer software and analytics systems in the RTC and local governments.

“We have a good supply train to get that data — that fuel, or that raw material — moving around,” he said. “And the engines are working well. Obviously, the whole community is at the beginning of this technology. But these are very solid engines, and we’ll learn from what we’re doing now, which will allow us to do bigger and better things down the road.”

Safety vs. privacy concerns

Getting to a safer future will require winning over Americans with concerns about the potential intrusiveness of technology. If the government is watching street corners with cameras, can it point its cameras into yards or even windows of homes? If the government can listen for gunshots, could it eavesdrop on private conversations?

“What city administration will be able to resist using these technologies to detect citizens infringing rules and regulations; jaywalkers where that is illegal for example; invalid vehicle parking; vehicle speeding; citizens entering prohibited areas; illegal gatherings; crowd control; and so forth,” wrote Chris Mellor in The Register, a London-based technology news and opinion website. “All of these things can be justified by the individual administrative and security functions, but, taken as a whole, the citizenry are surveilled constantly and increasingly and the boundary between their private activities and public presence moves to reduce their privacy and anonymity.”

Then, there are security concerns. Could a hacker take over traffic lights or feed false signals into V2I systems that would cause crashes? And what would happen in a power outage?

Kelsey Finch studies smart communities technology as policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank and advocacy group. She said it was important that governments keep people informed about new developments, seek public input and address concerns. Governments also must staff privacy and security teams with competent people and train others on responsible data collection.

It’s also vital for governments to ensure that technology works for the entire community, not just certain segments. Finch gave the example of an app in Boston that allowed people with smartphones to report the exact location of potholes, which the city then filled. The problem: The city soon was fixing a disproportionate number of potholes in higher-income neighborhoods, because residents in lower-income areas were less likely to have the technology needed for the app.

The underlying need for government is to be transparent, Finch said.

“They need to know what’s happening,” she said. “That goes a long way to alleviating concerns like, ‘There’s this new weird thing on the streetlight. It’s got a lot of sensors, and I think it’s spying on me.’ It could be that the light does nothing but count cars or is monitoring air quality and making sure there’s not too much pollution. And those are great things, but if you don’t know what they are, it leaves you with that feeling of creepiness.”

Proponents say governments will need to be forthcoming in proving their systems are safe, their networks are secure and their policies limit intrusiveness. But they’re confident that such measures can be put in place and the public will see the benefits of the technology.

“As we embrace this technology — and we should — we have to put guardrails in place to understand and address the privacy piece of it as well as the cybersecurity piece,” Cortez Masto said. “We’re at an exciting time and an important time right now, because I think both of those pieces can be built from the ground up as we build this infrastructure. We’re not coming in after the fact and saying, ‘Now we have to address cybersecurity and privacy.’ ”

Another hurdle is acceptance with the technology. Will Americans, as a whole, feel secure riding in an automated vehicle, or trusting their vehicles to detect pedestrians or bicyclists and take evasive action?

In response, Swallow asked questions of his own. Ten years ago, would Americans have felt at home paying for rides from average people, as opposed to calling a taxi? Would they have been comfortable renting their home for a night or a weekend to a stranger via an online app?

His point: The technology is coming, and once people see that it works and has value, it will no longer seem so foreign.

Kirkpatrick said the flipside of concerns about the advancements is demand for them. Americans — particularly younger ones — increasingly want more information available to them on their mobile devices or on their cars’ computer systems. Cities that provide it will be ahead of the curve in attracting residents and businesses.

“I’m very excited about it,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to have cutting-edge technology and to do some out-of-the-box thinking.”