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OpinionShort Read

The Power of Citizen Sensors

When a nation faces an existential threat, innovative approaches to national security develop. Patriotic citizens transition from bystanders to actively protecting their sovereignty in any way possible. In today’s digitised world of AI and 5G,  every individual is connected. Therefore using every citizen as a sensor holds immense potential. A cross-government and private-technical community connected to overseas security situations should explore how a nation can harness the power of its citizens. We can create a pervasive citizen sensor network by developing novel technologies, enhancing national security and defence capabilities. To achieve this in the UK, and with partner nations on the scale seen in conflicts such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, requires proactive action across government to implement citizen sensor networks before the manifestation of existential threats.

Power and Potential

How powerful are citizen sensors? Citizen sensors are ordinary individuals equipped with various devices capable of collecting and transmitting data. This provides unrivalled scale compared to traditional information, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, typically located at a single place and time. By leveraging the widespread availability of smartphones, wearables, and other connected devices, a nation can exploit a vast network of sensors distributed across its population. This approach enables real-time data collection and analysis, empowering authorities to make informed decisions and respond swiftly to threats.

Faced with the existential threat of Putin’s final dance, Ukraine’s best private-technical developers turned to national security. A national application for submitting tax returns, crucially linked to verified personally identifiable information assuring citizen data authenticity, is now used in the war to achieve everything from submitting for compensating damage resulting from Russian bombing to targeting Russian locations. The expedited capability development timeframe war tragically provides drives iterative improvement and greater functionality. This is the grandest example of a pervasive citizen network: verified digital infrastructure combined with over 19 million authenticated and active smartphone installations.

However, as with any armour, new ballistics are counter-developed. Russia claims to successfully use a bespoke application on their front line, which exploits a smartphone’s built-in microphone and some basic geo-time stamping to detect artillery fire. Combined with multiple devices, this achieves triangulation. This is a micro example of how readily available sensors on personal devices can be leveraged for security ends. Citizens in the UK recently experienced the government push a test emergency SMS to notify the public of sudden threats. This is the first example of the UK seeing its citizens as a network. From national adaption to tactical implementation, there are even off-the-shelf platforms for both the push and pull of citizen sensors.

How – Collection and Analytics

Citizen sensor data could be gathered passively or actively. Through incentivisation and public awareness campaigns, citizens would be encouraged to actively contribute to the citizen sensor network by downloading bespoke applications and granting data permissions when in use. Their devices can collect and transmit data on various parameters, such as location, audio, accelerometer, and environmental conditions, and even directly report images of suspicious activities.

The data analytics techniques required to realise the potential of this data concept already exist and are standard practice in various industries. Machine learning and AI, combined with prestige reference data such as the audio of a cruise missile, will enable the processing of this data to identify patterns, anomalies, and potential threats. Additionally, citizens can report incidents or share multimedia evidence through dedicated mobile applications, further enriching the common intelligence picture. Defence could utilise serving expertise or contract industry for maximum scale and economy in a cross-government approach to security.

Why – Plugging the Intelligence Gaps

By harnessing citizen sensors, a nation can create a distributed warning system that can alert government departments to potential threats. For instance, citizens’ devices can detect abnormal seismic activity, sudden changes in environmental conditions, or unusual crowd behaviour, providing early indicators of impending threats. Data fusion and real-time analysis allow a comprehensive understanding of the threat, enabling an appropriate, proactive response. Beyond defence and existential threats, governments could replace routine emergency response operations with a citizen sensor application-based network. 

Citizen sensors can play a vital role in crowdsourcing intelligence gathering. Citizens can capture and share information on suspicious activities, uncharacteristic movements, or emerging threats. Furthermore, their devices can passively support an understanding of the threat picture. Crowdsourcing intelligence expands the reach of traditional intelligence agencies and allows for a more diverse and comprehensive information pool. Governments can leverage this collective intelligence to assess risks, identify potential targets, and track hostile threats.

Breaking the Barriers: Data

Ensuring the privacy and security of this data is a crucial aspect of utilising citizen sensors. This implies the implementation of robust encryption techniques, anonymisation, variable access controls for times of crisis, and respective GDPR acts to safeguard personal information. Citizens must trust that data handling will be responsible, reinforcing the need for transparent data governance frameworks and legal protections. Recent conflicts demonstrate that citizens’ willingness to support government efforts at personal cost increases when a nation comes under threat.

Furthermore, individuals already sacrifice their personal information and mobile phone microphones for tailored social media advertising. Using this data willingly for their protection is not such a monumental evolution. The policy of deploying citizen sensors is likely to be the most significant challenge, but this must be completed before threats manifest. Data protection acts can include separate uses of citizen data during routine and times of crisis, as demonstrated in Ukraine.

Breaking the Barriers: Implementation

Implementing a pervasive citizen sensor network comes with challenges. Collaboration between the government, private-technical sector, and academic institutions is essential to implement a citizen sensor network successfully. Public-private partnerships can drive technological innovation, ensure the availability of necessary infrastructure, and foster research and development in relevant areas. Furthermore, partnerships can enhance public awareness and provide citizens with the tools and knowledge to contribute effectively to national security. Privacy concerns, data quality assurance, and managing the sheer volume of data will require technical resources.

However, the technical capability to do so already exists for similar user cases. Robust legal frameworks to protect privacy rights while enabling the fusion of citizen-generated data would address these residual challenges. Data validation and quality control mechanisms are essential. They ensure the reliability and accuracy of the information received, closely linked to the ongoing digitisation of identity and taxation platforms to ensure authentication. Education programs can also help citizens understand the importance of their contribution and how to use the applications effectively. Achieving a national citizen sensor network requires national sponsorship. This requires the combined efforts of security, digital, and interior-focused ministries.

A Critical 21st Century Capability

We could face an existential security threat. Therefore, harnessing the collective power of every citizen as a sensor provides a nation with an unprecedented advantage in national security. States can achieve real-time understanding by developing novel technologies and establishing a pervasive citizen sensor network. This can be done at a cross-governmental national level or for specific military purposes to augment traditional surveillance.

The UK could implement both for its use or assist partner nations in developing their citizen sensor security posture. The most basic example the UK could support would be a reporting method for counter-terrorism. This would allow an ordinary citizen to send a time and geo-stamped report of suspicious behaviour to a centralised analysis network. As with any conventional arms race, the cost of not adapting to new opportunities and leaving gaps in the intelligence cycle will be a nation’s most significant security threat.

Tom G

Tom is a former Royal Marines Officer who now specialises in digital operations and capabilities.

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