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Science, security and innovation

By Anthony Bergin and John Coyne

When it comes to safeguarding Australia’s domestic security, the Department of Home Affairs can’t, on its own, be reasonably expected to constantly protect us from all the threats we face.

Neither can we expect that the private sector will plug all of the capability gaps.

But when it comes to addressing the country’s key homeland security challenges, Australia’s law enforcement and security agencies should take greater steps to acknowledge that they don’t have a monopoly on good policy or innovative ideas.

On 14 July 2016, 31-year-old Tunisian-born French national, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, drove a rented truck through a crowd observing Bastille Day fireworks on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

In the process, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel murdered 86 people and injured more than 300 others. At the time of the attack a number of US university students were watching the fireworks.

After surviving the initial attack and the chaos that followed, University of California’s Anjai Banerjee tried to locate her fellow students and friends.

In the minutes, hours and days following this attack, formal and informal communication networks were flooded with data of varying accuracy.

Commentary and opinion were quickly interpreted as fact.

There was an unquenchable thirst for information. In the dearth of facts, confusion reigned supreme. Commentary and opinion were quickly interpreted as fact.

The University of California students in Nice self-organised their search. With the help of locals, the students looked for their missing friends, only to find that three students were injured and one was dead.

This firsthand experience led Banerjee and several classmates to build digital tools to help others do the same in the fight against terrorism.

And their products are working: Amnesty International is using this capability to verify photographs of the crackdown by security forces against minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Under normal circumstances, the information challenge following a terrorist attack is the responsibility of Australia’s intelligence community and security and policing agencies.

But the development of key counter-terrorism technologies is now, more often than not, being driven primarily by the private, not public, sector.

The same holds true for emergency management. Emergency responders, for example, rely on real-time and accurate information for enhanced situational awareness and safety. Now with new technologies, such as this one, public safety responders can be equipped with detailed venue maps and real-time information to support the speed and safety of emergency first responders.

A third example of innovation in security and public safety technology is that, for the first time, facial recognition technology will be used at an Olympic Games. A large-scale facial recognition system will be used to identify over 300,000 people at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

It will involve linking photo data with an identity card to be carried by accredited people. At Tokyo 2020 the events will be spread out across the metropolitan area, and people will need to authenticate themselves at each venue. The technology has been demonstrated in Tokyo, showing how athletes and other staff wouldn’t be able to enter venues if they were holding someone else’s ID card.

These three examples show how first-hand experience, coupled with fresh eyes free from the perceived policy parameters and private sector ingenuity, can together create innovation.

For governments, the challenge presented by these kinds of examples are twofold. First, how do our security agencies best leverage these technology developments? And second, how do we invest in science and technology in such a way as to drive innovation in national security?

The Department of Home Affairs should build on its current efforts to engage with industry and academia to regularly discuss emerging disruptive national security ideas and technologies.

This should be an ongoing activity across the Home Affairs portfolio, working with security technology industries and start-ups operating at the emerging edge of new security developments. As an example, the department could consider sponsoring competitions focused on solving specific innovation or technological security challenges.

More importantly, we suggest that Home Affairs should establish a research area as exists in the US Department of Homeland Security and the UK Home Office. It would work here with the Australian Department of Defence’s National Security Science and Technology Centre and reach out to academia.

Home Affairs needs to listen to its wider industry stakeholders to test whether it’s asking the right innovation questions. And it needs to consider whether others have found solutions to problems and threats they are yet to recognise.

Innovation in national security technology requires an ability to monitor what’s happening in change and technology, as well as finding the time and resources to consider the problem and alternatives.

Originally published by: APPS Policy Forum on 22 Aug 2018