Counter terrorism policing in the smart city

Counter Terrorism Policing in the Smart City – POSITION PAPER

new frontiers in sensor rich environment security

By Eur Ing Steve Nimmons BSc DIS MSc FBCS CITP FIET CEng FRSA FLS FSA Scot
London, August 2019


The pace of technological change is both exceptional and accelerating. Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), mobile and ubiquitous cloud computing are revolutionising digital society. Mobile devices are pervasive, urban landscapes saturated with CCTV and other digital beacons. The mega-city is a new-norm, and digital citizens demand instantaneous, resilient and life-enhancing services. The smart city as a living digital ecosystem is in its infancy. Innovators are building smart infrastructure, sensors and applications to enhance city life. This presents new exploitation threats from cyber-savvy attackers, as well as new opportunities for policing and intelligence services to deliver deterrents, containment and situational awareness solutions (in conjunction with private sector suppliers).

Domestic and transnational terrorism threaten urban prosperity, divide communities and undermine public trust in government and policing. Threats to critical infrastructure and potential Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) attacks from terrorists and hostile foreign intelligence services raise the stakes.

Counterterrorism strategy and policy must keep pace with technological disruption ensuring that digital resilience is built into emerging frameworks for sensor rich smart city environments.

This begs the question: in securing smart mega-cities from threats from domestic and transnational terrorism, can UK counterterrorism adopt and adapt innovative technology solutions to best serve the national security objectives of government, whilst supporting privacy and safety imperatives of its citizens?

This question is examined in outline, using the UK’s CONTEST counterterrorism strategy as a thematic handrail. The objective is to develop a structured thinking framework against which terrorism threats can be assessed and technology solutions hypothesised in terms of both viability and acceptability of response. This aims to contribute to the debate on smart cities, urban design and contemporary safety challenges from domestic and foreign terrorists.

CONTEST – The UK’s Counter Terrorism Framework

Liberal democracies face numerous, complex and evolving terrorist threats. Ethno-nationalism, separatism and threats from radical left wing and right wing terrorists historically dogged liberal Western governments with extensive campaigns waged across Europe by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), ETA, Al Qaeda, Daesh and others. The rise and escalating threat of Jihadi terrorism has been punctuated by atrocities including 9/11, the 7/7 London bombings and multi-casualty attacks against civilians in Madrid, Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin. Escalating threats from right-wing domestic terrorism are also well documented. Terrorists are adept at using technology for planning, targeting, surveillance and communications.

Post 9/11 the UK formulated its counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST) comprising 4 integrated sub-strategies aimed at preventing the radicalisation and recruitment of terrorists (PREVENT), disrupting plots, pursuing terrorists and their supporters through law enforcement, national and international judicial systems (PURSUE), assessing and managing terrorist threats against UK critical national infrastructure, transport systems and foreign interests (PROTECT) and integrating and building responsiveness and resilience to mitigate the effects of successful terrorist actions (PREPARE). The broad thematic categories are summarised below:

UK CONTEST Counter Terrorism Strategy


This position paper explores the potential to develop new fields of policy, practice and academic study in the fields of urban design, security and counterterrorism. The sub-strategies of CONTEST are briefly outlined and used to situate a structured conceptual model for the assessment.

A futuristic view of the potential for adaptive sensor rich environments is outlined, along with a discussion of tangible early deployments within major urban centres. Parallels are drawn between military counterterrorism and the future battlespace and counterterrorism policing in domestic sensor rich smart cities.

PREVENT Strategy – Countering Violent Extremism

In public discourse, PREVENT (HM Government, 2018) is perhaps the best known of the UK’s counterterrorism strategies. Its objective is to thwart terrorist recruitment through education, community leadership, social engagement, counter-narratives and identifying and engaging ‘at risk’ individuals. Extensive training and awareness schemes have been delivered to hundreds of thousands across the National Health System (NHS), schools, universities, faith and community organisations, central and local government and the prison and police services (Jeory and Cockburn, 2016).

Effective recruitment is essential to the sustainment and growth of terrorist organisations. Terrorism narratives twist and elevate grievances, seeking to highlight injustice, presenting what they believe to be ethical, moral or divine mandates for violent action. Recruitment and radicalisation occur online (Hoffman, 2006, pp. 197-228) through the mainstream media, in schools, community groups, religious institutions and in prisons. Reporting and removal of subversive materials online has grown in importance as technology has become a key enabler for self-radicalisation (Weimann, 2010).

Community grievances may be exacerbated through asymmetric focus on individual communities or religious groups, negating the effectiveness of preventative action. Unpopular security measures such as ‘stop and search’ (Whittaker, 2009, pp. 101-104), directed and intrusive surveillance and raids may further alienate communities, damage trust and impede the acceptance and effectiveness of PREVENT. This is further complicated by the increasing spectrum of recruitment targets from Jihadi brides (Shackle, Samira, 2016) to domestic and international suicide bombers (Britten, Waterhouse and O’Neill, 2003), to foreign fighters and a continuing threat from Northern Ireland Related Terrorism (NIRT).

PURSUE Strategy – Detection and Prosecution of Terrorists

The primary aim of the PURSUE strategy is the detection and disruption of domestic and international terrorist threats. An array of signals (SIGINT) and human (HUMINT) intelligence capabilities is drawn together including intrusive and directed methods. In addition, Image Intelligence (IMINT) and increasingly Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) combine to create a ‘rich picture’ of terrorist networks and potential threat sources.

Disruption of terrorist financing, detention and prosecution of suspects, deportation and exclusion of terrorist supporters are important focuses for counterterrorism policy. Proscription, asset freezing and criminalisation of terrorist fundraising denies groups much needed cash for arms, equipment and training.

PROTECT Strategy – Defending Critical Infrastructure from Terrorist Attack

The PROTECT sub-strategy focuses on the mitigation of diverse terrorism threats including those to critical national infrastructure, civil nuclear, aviation, chemical and industrial and public spaces. Increased border security, monitoring of passenger movements, cargo security and scanning technologies have been employed as counter-measures. Since 9/11 there has been extensive growth in global surveillance and analysis of passenger movements along with watch lists and no fly lists (Cole, 2015, pp. 1-5).
Killing and maiming civilians in mass casualty attacks is a favoured tactic of Jihadi terrorists. A plethora of options including public transportation, tourist sites, places of worship, shopping centres, sports venues, markets, bars, clubs and restaurants (Hewitt, 2008, pp. 70-71) provide an almost inexhaustible supply of soft targets. The government and counterterrorism agencies bear a high moral responsibility for protecting society from these threats. In so doing, ethical questions arise as to proportionate and acceptable levels of armed policing, overt and covert surveillance in private and public spaces (Whittaker, 2009, p. 97) and the use of legal powers to curtail activities such as photography. Debate in the UK following the Westminster terrorist attack (Allen and Henderson, 2017) has brought the question of armed policing to the fore (Tapsfield, 2017). The militarisation and de-normalisation of UK society would be a victory for terrorists and risks diminishing personal freedoms and liberal ideals. As the apocalyptic ambition of terrorists rises, threats against nuclear, chemical and biological sites become increasingly plausible. The implications of a successful attack of this nature would be catastrophic.

PREPARE Strategy – Mitigating Terrorist Attacks

The PREPARE strategy acknowledges that not all terrorist plots will be detected or otherwise deterred. Minimising the impact of a successful attack is therefore a key focus of counterterrorism policy. The terrorising effect of a prolonged and sustained attack could lead to public demoralisation and lost confidence in government and its security apparatus. Scenario planning, training and multi-agency counterterrorism exercises are valuable. The need for seamless communication and operational integration of emergency services is a key lesson from the 7/7 bombings. Robust counterterrorism policy must therefore work to construct an agile, but highly organised multi-tiered, multi-agency response.

The Smart City as a Protective System

Having briefly touched on the major objectives of the CONTEST strategy, it is next helpful to consider how smart cities might adopt innovative technology solutions as part of their overall security and resilience designs. This paper argues that there is high potential to develop new integrated solutions, leveraging 5G networks, the Internet of Things and emerging AI and machine learning algorithms.

It is first helpful to consider how a sensor rich environment might be constructed. In the depiction below, the 5 domains of ‘warfare’ have been used as these are (to varying degrees) pertinent in urban environments. Sensors could be deployed in all of Land, Air, Water, Space and Cyber domains. Sensors could be fixed, mobile, above or below ground, deployed in urban waterways, could be mobile airborne platforms, or could be deployed as part of the cyber defences of a smart city. Sensor domains can therefore be thought of in very similar terms to the future battlespace, and there are potentially interesting overlaps with military technology innovation.

Smart City Sensor Domains


Having laid out a basic conceptual model for describing sensor domains, it is next helpful to consider some ‘real examples’ of sensor deployments that could help deliver counterterrorism objectives within smart cities. These are situated within a simple 4-box model, derived from the CONTEST strategy.

Key Opportunities


Given the nature of PREVENT and the human factors involved, this strategy is most complex. There may be opportunities to draw on thinking from the US military and the concept that ‘every solider is a sensor’ in the future battlespace. Reframing this in terms of the ‘police officer as a sensor’ in the smart city has potential but requires very careful analysis in terms of utility and public acceptability. Body worn cameras are a good example of in policing of acceptable digital solutions in this context.


Target hardening using hybrid physical and digital controls has extensive potential and numerous examples can be found at transport hubs, public buildings, airports and critical national infrastructure sites. As technology develops and terrorists become more innovative, they are likely to attempt to adapt tactics to unmanned attacks such as driverless car bombs (already seen in Mosul and other former territories held by Daesh). Secondary bomb attacks are often planned to target civilians and security forces evacuating or responding to initial attacks. The ability for an environment to ‘self-adapt’, assist in safe evacuation and protect emergency responders in establishing cordons would have significant potential. Lessons from Safe City initiatives in Iraq and other combat missions could be harnessed.


Gunshot detection systems deployed in Chicago are an interesting example of auditory sensors, linked to CCTV. The sensors use machine learning to distinguish gunshots from fireworks, thunder or car backfires and have saved numerous hours in false report investigations. When a gunshot is detected, control room operators can review CCTV footage from the detection area. This often allows them to watch the actual incident. Detectors are deployed in crime hotspots where gun violence is prevalent. Some citizens have expressed concerns that private conversations are recorded by the sensors, indicating the potential for public mistrust.

There may be potential for blast detection systems, systems that push alerts to off-duty responders (that help is needed to mitigate an ongoing attack). The Connected Patrol Car as a mobile sensor platform could also have potential under PREPARE objectives.

Terrorist events, by design and nature, create widespread panic, leading to serious operational difficulties, ‘fog of war’ and communications breakdowns.

Automation, machine learning, scenario planning and game theoretic techniques all have potential in building smart city infrastructures that can adapt quickly to changing threat profiles. The models provided in this paper are illustrative of a structured thinking approach that could be used to ‘rank and rate’ potential solutions to complex design challenges.


CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems are well established countermeasures. They assist law enforcement with routine prevention and detection of crime. In counterterrorism there are numerous applications in terms of tracking suspects and vehicles, surveillance of premises and hardening targets. Huge numbers of CCTV cameras are operated by private sector businesses and security companies and the protection of private space and trends such as the privatisation of policing are highly pertinent. Constructing interoperable infrastructure within the smart city and having data collection and data integration is a complex, yet essential topic. The emergence of IoT insights and APIs on top of smart infrastructure within the smart city would be of high utility to policy makers and law enforcement.

Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) solutions are also being deployed in crime scene analysis (such as Blackmarble’s use of Microsoft HoloLens).
Interrogating sensors deployed within smart city environments may aide investigators ‘fingerprint’ the operational context of a terrorism crime. For example, WIFI tracking mobile devices, phones, wearable computing and could be useful in tracking down potential witnesses and suspects.

The ability to assimilate vast amounts of digital information from sensors, cameras, dash cams and other IoT devices appears to have rich potential.

Deploying and operating solutions at scale with adequate security and responsiveness presents interesting challenges for security researchers and computer scientists.

Smart City Security Deployments of Sensors


Putting together the conceptual model of the 5 sensor domains (air, land, water, space, cyber) with some candidate solutions directed towards CONTEST objectives begins to illustrate the potential of investigating innovative solutions using smart city, IoT and emerging technologies including 5G, augmented and virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence. Conceptualising urban environments as ‘information battlespaces’ is additionally interesting in assessing potential cross-overs from military innovation in the ‘battlespace of the future’.

Early Thinking in Operationalisation

Taking the illustration further, there appears to be merit in exploring the potential to have sensors deployed and running at varying levels of operational ‘alertness’. This concept draws on terrorism threats levels and level of security response. The terrorism threat levels step up from low through moderate, substantial, severe, and critical. Response postures of normal, heightened and exceptional signal the level of security service response and need for public vigilance. The ability to place smart cities (or areas of those cities) into high digital alertness in response to rising terrorism threat levels in an interesting proposition. For example, as a threat rises (or an event occurs), data collection could become more granular as sensors are orchestrated to help prevent, mitigate or contain an attack. Systematic collection of data and interaction with extant data systems has potential to provide responders and investigators improved digital tools and forensic capabilities.

Taking a specific example, consider a threat of bomb attack against a prominent city building. Left of Boom (prior to detonation) there are several postures a sensor rich environment could take to help harden the area and make attack more difficult.

If the attack is successful, Right of Boom (post detonation), a sensor rich environment could be reconfigured to help contain the attack, provide better information to responders, protection from secondary attack and forensic information for investigators and prosecutors.

Left of Boom

In the ‘Left of Boom’ context, an environment would be geared towards ‘PROTECT’ objectives, effectively trying to harden the target and make an attack prohibitively complex.

Sensors defending against VBIED attack


Right of Boom

If an attack is successful and detonation occurs with mass casualties and/or damage to buildings, the environment could be reconfigured to different threat postures by orchestrating deployed capabilities for different objectives. The model below does not attempt to define actual solutions at this stage, merely to suggest a structured thinking framework through which threats and response scenarios could be elicited, ranked and tested.

Sensor postures after terrorist attack


Risk Aligned Posture

Applying a futuristic and disruptive lens to the problem space, it is conceivable that a ‘risk aware’ smart city environment could self-adapt, under directives linked to terrorism threats levels as defined through the UK Security Services and bodies such as COBRA. This paper does not prejudge the solution, but simply brings to the reader’s attention, the potential to innovate with sensor rich environmental design and smart city security.

Terrorist Threat Severity and Sensor Postures


Key Challenges and Next Steps

There are multiple factors that complicate the ‘operational environment’. These include technology pace of change, particularly in AI and IoT; cyber sophistication of criminal and terrorist actors; ethics and acceptability of technology solutions to policy makers and citizens; perennial challenges around PREVENT and community perceptions of mistrust. In embracing digital change, it is imperative that ethical considerations are explored to ascertain the potential damage that poorly delivered policy and technology solutions may have, thereby undermining the critical trust dynamics of community and intelligence led policing.

Digital policing capabilities must also be considered, alongside challenges of integrating private sector and public sector security apparatus in a smart city context. Significant policy and technical research is needed in these areas to determine the cost effectiveness and viability of self-adapting sensor rich environments in protecting citizens in future urban environments.

As depicted below, the next steps in developing these ideas include:

1. Defining a bold vision for counterterrorism policing in the smart city
2. Exploring key policy and the social acceptability of deployed sensors within urban environments
3. The economic and technical viability of developing solutions aligned to CONTEST objectives is essential to assess. This paper suggests an outline structured framework through which to explore threats, solutions and to rank and rate potential opportunities by risk, cost, viability and public acceptability
4. It is envisaged that a pipeline of proof of concepts / proof of technology as well as research projects and Open Innovation collaborations with academia would emerge from (3). Assessing technological solutions in extant mega-cities (such as Seoul) may prove fruitful and provide insight and opportunity for similar development in major UK cities
5. As the field develops, requirements for standards (security, interoperability, quality etc.) will emerge and government and industry will need to collaborate to ensure the UK keeps apace with other nations

Securing the Smart City



A complicating nexus of globalisation, demographic change and technological advance is creating new opportunities for extremists. Terrorism is highly adaptive and loan actor terrorism, cyber, homegrown and international Jihadi terrorism constitute a complex UK threat landscape. An immutable requirement for a liberal democracy is to deliver counterterrorism response within strict legal and ethical frameworks. To carefully balance the risk of diminishing individual freedoms and privacy, security benefits must be well defined and measurable. The development of new fields of study in smart city design, particularly in the deployment of sensors, use of IoT, 5G, AI and ‘Web scale’ digital design patterns has potential in mitigating key terrorism threats, as outlined in the UK CONTEST strategy. Although CCTV, ANPR and other sensor solutions (such as gun shot detection) are in use across the world, there appears to be significant potential in examining smart city security through disruptive innovative lenses. Several opportunities have been highlighted along with key next steps. A structured thinking framework has been defined and discussed that enables policy makers and digital thought leaders to explore and examine the field in greater depth. As digital policing models evolve, there are significant operational impacts on police and significant research needed to assess the impact on police capabilities and culture.


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