HELL’S KITCHEN, NY – Patrons of Larry Flint’s Hustler Club in Manhattan might think twice about taking a cab to or from the notorious hot spot if they knew how easy it is for anyone with access to the datasets collected by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission to trace their pick up and drop off points.
A 2014 FOI request by self-described “urbanist, mapmaker and data junkie”, Chris Whong, yielded the GPS data recorded for all of New York City’s taxi rides of 2013. The precise coordinates and fares for more than 173 million individual trips were made public, including actor Bradley Cooper’s quick $10.50 jaunt to Greenwich Village to escape the paparazzi.
Whong unleashed a firestorm of controversy after using the data treasure trove to make an animated visualization of a single day of cab rides in the Big Apple. Titled NYC Taxis: A Day in the Life, the “civic hacker” published his painstakingly recreated timeline of taxi cab movements in the city, complete with a breakdown of costs like fares, tolls and taxes for each trip.
Questions about the trade-offs between data transparency and citizens’ right to privacy became a central theme in the press coverage that ensued, which mostly focused on the danger of such data falling into the wrong hands rather than the collection of the data itself, not to mention the powerful entities driving the massive accumulation of information.
After all, Whong’s moving map was nothing more than an amateur version of what is known in engineering circles as a “digital twin” or “a virtual representation of a real-world entity that is regularly synchronized with its physical counterpart”, as Northrop Grumman’s Digital Transformation Strategy Director, Laura Szypulski, defines it.
Szypulski sits on the steering committee of the Digital Twin Consortium (DTC); a non-profit group that promotes the implementation of digital twin technologies across multiple industries together with other major defense contractors like the MITRE Corporation, Lockheed Martin, and General Electric.
As part of its mission to drive “awareness, adoption, interoperability, and development of digital twin technology” throughout the private sector, DTC partners with several smart city pilot projects in the United States and around the world to ensure that the standards set forth by its umbrella organization, the Object Management Group (OMG), are maintained.
Beyond the specialized applications of digital twin tech in the fields of aeronautics and other high-level engineering professions, smart cities represent the singular point of convergence for the various nodes of the data economy, spanning the commercial, financial, health, and public sectors, that will rely on digital twinning to carry out the calculations, projections and predictive analyses necessary for the algorithmically-determined economic and social management models of our burgeoning digital enclosure.
In this context, Northrop Grumman’s role as the founding member of the DTC is profoundly disturbing, given its current contract with the Department of Homeland Security to build the largest biometric database in the country, HART, which will amass everything from DNA biomarkers to facial recognition data, and collect information on people’s “non-obvious relationships”.
Crucially, HART will also interface with ICE’s Biometric Identification Transnational Migration Alert Program or BITMAP – an international biometric “information exchange” program established by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) International Operations Division in 2011 in over 14 countries.
The latter is of particular relevance to the smart city paradigm DTC and its members are trying to bring about. Just three years ago, the ACLU disclosed how mass surveillance technologies were being used by ICE agents to target immigrants. Using software developed by a company then called Vigilant Solutions (since acquired by Motorola), which runs the federal law enforcement agency’s automated license plate reader (ALPR) database, ICE officials inputted over 5 billion license plate scans comprising nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population.
Such interlocking systems of mass surveillance raise plenty of red flags on their own, but when considered in the light of digital twin technology and smart cities as mechanisms for the “computational extraction of value” from human activity, the implications for society are indeed grave.
Cloning Las Vegas
Cityzenith is one of DTC’s many member companies, and has launched four smart city pilot projects across the U.S. to sell its SmartWorldOS digital twin software platform through their “Clean Cities – Clean Future Initiative”, which purports to leverage “cutting edge AI to automate the complex de-carbonization process”, and help cities achieve “net zero” compliance standards, according to a video presentation showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), recently concluded in Las Vegas, Nevada.
CEO Michael Jansen announced the beginning of the second phase of Cityzenith’s flagship project, which is taking place in Las Vegas itself, in the presence of Councilwoman Olivia Diaz and the city’s Chief Information Officer, Michael Sherwood. In partnership with the municipal government and data-processing company Terbine, Cityzenith will be “using Las Vegas’ existing IoT sensors and 5G network to collect real-time street-level data that will inform decisions about energy use, emissions, traffic, parking, noise, and emergency management.”
“Digital twins are rapidly becoming vital to how cities are run,” Sherwood told Cities Today back in November, and bragged that Las Vegas would “have a city-scale digital twin that is driven by the physical environment,” which would allow them to “control key systems through it.” In January, Cityzenith’s Jensen invited “real estate owners, government agencies, university researchers, data partners, architects, and casino operators” to join in the next phase of the project, enticing them with the prospect of “risk-free, no money down financing” for building owners to retrofit their properties.
SmartWorldOS will make it possible for Las Vegas’ hotels and casinos to collect an “unprecedented level of real-time sustainability data” to “continuously monitor energy consumption, tenant behavior, and renewables’ performance”, allowing “users to optimize their operational and energy systems (emphasis added)”. The term users, in this case, is clarified by Terbine’s definition:
“AI is the New User – Artificial Intelligence, in particular machine learning or ML, is at the heart of many new and upcoming applications, machines and systems. A problem for AI is ensuring that it receives the correct data from the right sources. Terbine has developed a normalized taxonomy and descriptive language specifically for AI-based “users” which minimizes the possibility of false positives, including spoofed data, entering a system.”
In addition to Las Vegas, Cityzenith is running parallel pilot programs with the city governments of New York, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, with private sector partners like Amazon, as well as academic institutions like Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Pittsburgh. The Digital Twin Consortium is making sure that all of these projects follow the prescribed pathways of the interoperability standards established by the big transnational players, in order to guarantee that data keeps flowing irrespective of differences in hardware, operating systems, network protocols, application formats or geopolitical hurdles.
Back in 1989, America’s top technology companies and American Airlines got together to form a technology standards consortium, called Object Management Group. Original members included IBM, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Phillips, and Sun Microsystems. Taking HP’s NewWave Object Management Facility (OMF) as the initial framework, the new association of industry behemoths set out to establish globally-accepted standards for distributed networks, using the object-oriented programming (OOP) paradigm.
OOP is a computer programming model that organizes software design around data, or objects, as opposed to functions and logic. Objects can be defined as a data field with unique attributes and behavior, which offers a level of flexibility not possible through other models.
While this method has its drawbacks, technically speaking, OOP overcomes some limitations of other programming approaches, and more significantly, allows for interoperability across different systems and network configurations, because it “focuses on the objects that developers want to manipulate rather than the logic required to manipulate them.” This approach is key for the kinds of simulation software inherent in applications of digital twin technologies. It is also central to the prevailing artificial intelligence paradigm and robotics.
Soon after its foundation, OMG developed its first original standards specification called Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), which was released in the early 1990s and soon adopted by the U.S. Army and Navy for its AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System), FedEx, Home Depot and many other concerns. CNN used it to structure its news content across its websites and Charles Schwab redesigned its online trading platform with the standard.
Since then, OMG has developed new standards, such as the Unified Modeling Language (UML), and the more widely-known XML Metadata Interchange. These standards have been incorporated into the protocols of the worldwide federation of national standards, International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which runs a global certification cartel that keeps the private sector moving in the direction desired by the likes of OMG and its powerful membership.
The Interoperability Cartel
Today, OMG manages six separate programs to disseminate its OOP standards across multiple business sectors. The Digital Twin Consortium is only one of these. It also created the AR for Enterprise Alliance (AREA) in 2013 to influence the augmented reality “ecosystem”; BPM+ Health to target the healthcare industry (2019); Consortium for Information & Software Quality (CISQ) to directly influence software development companies; the Industry IoT Consortium (IIC), sponsored by Huawei, and the related Data Distribution Service (DDS) Foundation.
Virtually all of these entities were formed after OMG’s original private sector outreach program, which IBM put together in 2009, failed to successfully address the “market downturn” that motivated its creation in the first place. The Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) Consortium was initially founded by BEA Systems, Cisco, IBM, and SAP AG, and was intended to bridge “the gap between business and IT”.
IBM placed the SOA under its Business Ecology Initiative (BEI), an umbrella organization that sought to optimize information technology “for business benefits, processes, and roles”. Many, if not all SOA Consortium members continue to feature on one, and in some cases many, of the member lists of rebranded OMG programs. The SOA and the BEI ceased to exist as such sometime in 2015, and the new programs were created to refocus their efforts in a more pointed way.
The Digital Twin Consortium figures among the most important of these, with companies like Dell, Microsoft, General Electric, Intel and Northrop Grumman represented on its steering committee. But, together with all of the private companies with intimate ties to the U.S. defense sector, federal agencies also have a strong presence. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), unsurprisingly, can be found on all of OMG’s membership rolls.
As covered by Silicon Icarus, the NIST is heavily involved in promoting smart city projects all over the world, and availing itself of the strong gravitational pull these large multinational companies exert through OMG and its satellite programs, it is successfully enforcing interoperable data standards internationally on their behalf, irrespective of any political climate or imminent hostilities, and thereby laying down the pipelines of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps no better example of this can be found on the eve of a Ukrainian conflict than a Russian video analytics company NTechLab, which prominently features NIST’s certification on their website, as well as recognition from IARPA, the DARPA-inspired research outfit within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Recently bought out by state-owned Rostec, the company proved its value for the smart city panopticon during the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
It’s FindFace facial recognition technology was deployed in 30 cities for the global tournament and its algorithm demonstrated a 99% accuracy, and led to the arrest of 180 people. IBM and Microsoft famously divested themselves from direct involvement in the facial recognition business after protests over the George Floyd killing, but interoperable system standards mean they don’t have to be in order to profit from their implementation.