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Interview: Safe cities in the era of government digital transformation

NZ Security, June/July 2017

In this exclusive interview with NZ Security, Global Chief Public Safety Expert of Huawei Enterprise Business Group, Hong-Eng Koh, talks the challenges and opportunities facing safe cities in the era of government digital transformation.


In late April, Huawei hosted its Global Safe City Summit 2017 in Dubai, introducing its C-C4ISR Collaborative Public Safety Solutions, which are aimed at driving the digital transformation of the global public safety industry. At the forefront of this push is Mr Hong-Eng Koh, who has been at the cutting-edge of policing and technology for decades.

Prior to joining Huawei, Mr Koh spent more than 15 years in Oracle, including Sun Microsystems which was acquired by Oracle. He started his career with the Singapore Police Force (SPF), holding various appointments including senior investigation officer, head of crime prevention and community policing, and head of operations and training. His last appointment was as head of the Computer Systems Division.

After leaving SPF and before joining Sun Microsystems, Mr Koh was in the systems integration business and was involved in various mega government infrastructure and applications projects, including government-wide networking and messaging projects and Singapore's widely acknowledged eGovernment projects. He is a Vice President of the Society for the Policing of Cyberspace (POLCYB).


NZSM: What are the new safety/security threats that need to be addressed by the public security industry, and how do they differ from existing safety threats?


Koh: The cornerstones of digital transformation are digital platforms and ecosystems. For example, AirBnB, as a platform, is driving an ecosystem of house owners with travelers who need accommodation. While digital transformation is driving new business models, and even new industries, it is also disrupting the norms.

Governments can be digitally disrupted too. We have witnessed digital platforms driving fake news, rumor mongering, distrust of authority, xenophobia, and even vigilantism. This is only the tip of the iceberg; the “ecosystem” here comprises mainly law-abiding people who may not have committed an offence, but also some with questionable behaviors.


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The actual disruptive “icebergs” are existing public safety threats leveraging digital transformation, or more accurately, leveraging technologies such as social networking, mobile computing, cloud and even big data. For example, a terrorist cell today is not limited by geographical constraints; it adopts a platform to widen its ecosystem of likeminded terrorists across the world.

People with ill-intent can spread rumors and incite violence during mass protests through the use of mesh-networking, such as Firechat. Pedophiles are using platforms to create, share and trade child exploitation materials. We are even seeing Cyber-Attack-as-a-Service, such as those services offered by Lizard Squad.


NZSM: What are the main barriers/challenges to achieving safe cities?


Koh: For a start, governments cannot uphold public safety and maintain safe cities on their own; especially with perpetrators leveraging platforms to widen their ecosystems of likeminded individuals. Thus, the main barrier is when a single government agency is working alone for public safety/safe city and not involving the communities in all phases of public safety threats: prevention, detection, response, and recovery.

In this age of digital disruption by the ill-minded, we truly need ‘a network to fight a network’ and we call this Collaborative Public Safety [consisting of]: inter-agency collaboration (ecosystem); community collaboration (ecosystem); and digital platforms to enable the ecosystems.

There are further challenges to realising such collaboration, including:

  • Command & Control (C2): multiple public safety agencies with different emergency numbers and different operations centres; agencies also have to deal with prank or repeated emergency calls, and are largely unaware of caller locations. Agencies rely only on data and mapping, with poor awareness of the extent of threats.
  • Communication (C): largely voice only with limited data; reliance on a separate network, largely public LTE for broadband data, which itself gives rise to problems such as additional cost, additional devices, and threat of public network outage during major incidents. Different agencies using different devices/networks; existence of blind spots and damaged infrastructure.
  • Cloud (C): hundreds of siloed applications, especially across multiple public safety agencies; lacking in information sharing; difficulty in launching new services for both internal and community users.
  • Intelligence (I): data silos across agencies and with different data types; dealing with new modus operandi and unknown unknowns, especially among the massive databases; lacking in real-time data processing made worse by aging technologies.
  • Surveillance (S): siloed video surveillance sites lacking intelligent analytics; slow transfer rate even if the sites are connected; poor power and data lines in developing nations.
  • Reconnaissance (R): poor security and identity management of sensors/devices; complex management of such sensors/devices from vast numbers of vendors; massive scale in terms of data and concurrency.

To enable Collaborative Public Safety and to counter the above challenges, Huawei built its Collaborative C4ISR, or C-C4ISR solution platforms, which leverages our global ecosystem of industry-leading partners, exemplifying our “Platform + Ecosystem” strategy in empowering the digital transformation of our customers.

While C-C4ISR aims to counter the barriers leading to government agencies working alone and not involving communities, there is another barrier that we need to consider: trust. The entire digital transformation is built on trust; just like we have to trust the Uber platform before we get inside the car of a stranger.

To gain trust from other agencies and from communities, an agency needs to be transparent and respect the rule of law, including privacy. Huawei’s Unified Security solution platform safeguards the security of the device, connection and cloud, so that entities can connect, share, and even collaborate knowing the right data is being accessed by the right people at the right time at the right place and on the right device.


NZSM: Governments increasingly understand the need to harness the capabilities of the public safety industry and to work with industry to develop and implement effective safe city solutions. What are the attributes of best-practice government-industry collaboration, and can you share any examples/case study of particularly successful government-industry safe city collaboration


Koh: Indeed, technologies are developing at such a fast pace that it is increasingly difficult for government agencies to just keep buying technologies only. I feel that attributes of best-practice government-industry collaboration include:

  • Deviation from the traditional customer-vendor relationship. While maintaining procurement transparency and fairness, the relationship has to evolve to one of partnership and collaboration. The government agency and the ICT company have to become partners. We are already seeing such open collaborations. For example, the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has formed collaborations with companies in various technological areas to accelerate innovations for enhanced operational efficiency and better services for citizens.

  • Joint development of technological solutions. One example is the development of the Domain Awareness System by the New York Police Department and Microsoft.
  • The adoption of Technologies-as-a-Service, like utility-based pricing on a scalable/elastic/agile/secured cloud platform.


NZSM: Is the ability of technology to provide the infrastructure for and means of collaboration outpacing the ability of government to collaborate (i) among its own agencies, and (ii) with the private sector?


Koh: When I headed the IT area of Singapore Police Force more than 20 years ago, my principle was ‘operations drive technologies’. But today’s technologies are evolving and developing at such a fast pace, many new processes and operations can be introduced through the use of technologies.

For example, in the city of Qiqihar in China, 5,000 private taxis are able to share real-time videos from their personal in-vehicle cameras with the local police within a private framework. Such Collaborative Public Safety has helped the police solve crimes. I believe that operations and technologies are in a cycle: operations still drive technologies, and technologies can drive innovation in operations.

In some countries, technologies are outpacing the ability of government to collaborate. This is not an issue; the issue is whether there is leadership drive and commitment to innovate agencies’ operations to uphold Collaborative Public Safety.

Another issue relates specifically to developed nations/cities, which tend to have legacy technologies, and thus have some resistance to the adoption of new technologies despite the obvious benefits. This has led to us witnessing greenfield developing nations/cities leap-frogging them and adopting state-of-the-art safe city technologies.

While Huawei offers state-of-the-art technologies, we also understand the need to protect the past investments made by government agencies. We build solutions based on open standards enabling interoperability with older technologies, thus allowing the latter to be used until they run out of their operational values.

Collaborative Communication, for example, allows LTE-based broadband critical communication trunking systems to interoperate with legacy systems, such as TETRA and P25. Huawei’s Collaborative Cloud adopts OpenStack standards to work with other brands.


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