September 27, 2018 / 8:30 AM / 2 months ago

Virtual Singapore project could be test bed for planners - and plotters

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - With the click of a button, Singapore’s security forces could soon use a digital version of the city-state to simulate a bomb threat at a sports stadium - and learn how to respond if there was a real attack.

George Loh, director of programmes at the National Research Foundation (NRF), showcases Virtual Singapore, a detailed 3D model of the city-state that will be fed with big data and could assist in everything from urban planning to disaster mitigation, at the National Research Foundation offices in Singapore September 21, 2018. Picture taken September 21, 2018. REUTERS/John Geddie

Yet officials worry that “Virtual Singapore” - available soon to state agencies before an eventual public rollout - could also aid would-be terror plotters which the government says have their sights set on the wealthy island.

This is just one of many security conundrums facing developers of the 3D model that will be fed by big data and could assist in everything from urban planning to disaster mitigation in the city of 5.6 million people.

Developers and experts say the scheme is one of the most ambitious of its kind and will be watched by other cities hoping to use new technologies to improve the lives of citizens.

“This information will help our daily lives, but it could also fall in the wrong hands and create problems for Singapore,” said George Loh, director of programs at the National Research Foundation, a department in the Prime Minister’s Office which has been leading the project’s development for over three years.

“We need to think about that. We need to be two or three steps ahead,” Loh told Reuters.

He said some officials considered the system “too dangerous” because militants, for example, may try to access details like the height or view from buildings to plan sniper attacks.

Cybersecurity was also a concern after the country suffered its biggest data breach this year in which 1.5 million people including the prime minister had information stolen.

Virtual Singapore will be restricted to computers not connected to the worldwide web, so-called ‘internet separation’, when it is rolled out to government offices in the coming months.

The problems become more complex when deciding on the amount and accuracy of the data that will be available to citizens using the 3D model at a later date.

“If it is not accurate enough, nobody will use the platform. But if it’s too accurate, then there’s a problem. The question is the tradeoff and how we address the threats that we would face,” Loh said.

ROLE MODEL?

With a stable, centralized government, Singapore is seen as an ideal testing ground for new technologies. But some plans, such as a network of surveillance cameras with facial recognition software, have stoked privacy concerns.

Scott Hawken, a lecturer in urban development and design at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said Virtual Singapore was among “the most advanced and comprehensive” 3D mapping projects and was seen as a model by other countries.

However, he cautioned that such technologies also raised serious questions about privacy, surveillance and security.

The S$73 million ($53 million) Virtual Singapore scheme is part of the government’s “Smart Nation” plan to use cutting-edge technology to improve people’s lives. The government has pledged to be sensitive to privacy, and Loh said some data on Virtual Singapore may be anonymised to address those concerns.

Alexandre Parilusyan of Dassault Systemes, a French software firm working on the project, said other cities have used 3D modeling to address problems like transport planning, but the scale and ambition of Virtual Singapore makes it unique.

Among its future uses, the 3D model could predict the spread of flash floods in the city, or simulate how microwaves travel through high-density areas and certain building materials to help detect dark spots in cellular network coverage.

“When you look at what Singapore is doing today, you are already looking to the future in the crystal ball,” he said.

Reporting by John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Darren Schuettler

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