New mobile app to serve as ‘eyes and ears’ during emergencies in Singapore

The SgSecure app is seen at its official launch in Singapore September 24, 2016. — TODAY pic
The SgSecure app is seen at its official launch in Singapore September 24, 2016. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Sept 24 — To provide Singapore with more eyes and ears on the ground during crises, a newly-launched mobile app will serve not only as a public alert system but also as a platform for the public to feed information back to the authorities.

The app was unveiled today in conjunction with the launch of SGSecure national movement, which aims to ramp up the nation’s counter-terror strategy by reaching out to various stakeholders in the community.

While lauding the app’s potential for sharing “life-saving information” quickly and accurately, security experts whom TODAY spoke to also flagged challenges, such as in ensuring its active usage among Singaporeans and the risk of the SGSecure app being hijacked.

During major emergencies, such a terror attack or riot, the app — which can now be downloaded from the Google Play and iOS app stores for free, and does not require registration — updates members of the public on the situation as it unfolds, such as which roads to avoid.

Users can also send photos and videos to the police using a “point-shoot-send function”, or call and text the police and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) through the app.

Information collected via the app will be used in post-incident investigations, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

The MHA hopes that the app can also help users in the face of an imminent emergency, such as through its embedded videos demonstrating “Run, Hide, Tell” protocol, which teaches residents how to evacuate a location under attack by the safest route or find cover, and inform the police when appropriate.

The app is currently available only in English, but the vernacular languages may be considered in its future iterations. All new Samsung phones will be pre-installed with the app.

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said the app would help the authorities gather accurate intelligence as a threatening situation unfolds, and mount a “proportionate and effective response”.

However, safeguards must also be put in place to prevent tech-savvy terrorists from sending in tactical misinformation, said Assoc Prof Kumar, who coordinates the school’s National Security Studies Programme.

RSIS research analyst Nur Diyanah Anwar pointed out that the mobile network may be disrupted during a crisis, rendering the app futile.

“The app might also ‘hang’ or become unstable in an emergency due to the immense surge of content sent by the public... These not only impedes immediate information being relayed, but can also contribute to the sense of chaos,” she said.

Benjamin Ang, a senior fellow at RSIS’ Centre of Excellence for National Security, said the app must complement other channels in sending out alerts during an emergency.

“All of the other channels, like SMS, TV, radio and sirens, still need to remain available, because not everyone will install the app.”

The authorities may also partner telcos to ensure greater usage, Ang added.

Agreeing, Nur Diyanah said specific groups of people might be excluded from using the app, such as the elderly or those who cannot afford mobile phones.

A United States-based expert on public safety and homeland security, Russ Johnson, said appropriate protocols must be in place to process and follow up with crowd-sourced information.

“While having the ability to collect massive amounts of information from the public is great, response operations and technology must be aligned... From what I’ve seen in other organisations, precious time can often be wasted trying to mobilise resources after an attack.”

He added that messages in the midst of an emergency or terror-related event should be “short and precise”.

“For example, providing directions to stay indoors or head to a nearby evacuation centre because during an emergency, people in the vicinity will be upset, nervous and will need clear directions,” said Johnson.

In the United States, a similar mobile emergency system was activated across New York City early Monday morning (September 19), when millions of people received messages identifying 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami as the man wanted for bombings in New York and New Jersey over the weekend.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio described these “electronic wanted posters” — delivered via the government’s Wireless Emergency Alerts  (WEA) system, which was also used to provide safety updates after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 — as a “modern approach that really engaged a whole community”.

However, some criticised the text-only alerts as being vague and open-ended. Media reports in the US also raised concerns on the possibility of identifying the wrong suspect.

The US federal authorities have proposed an overhaul to the four-year-old WEA system, such as including capabilities for photos and URLs, and making it harder for mobile users to opt out.

In response, the MHA said the SGSecure app will complement current public alert capabilities, such as the public warning siren network, while the ministry continues to seek new ways of disseminating emergency messages.

For example, when a raging fire broke out at the CK Building in Tampines, last month, the SCDF conducted a trial where some members of the public in the vicinity were notified via SMS, the ministry said. — TODAY

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