Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A federal agency worries they could aid terrorists. But really, they expose our vulnerabilities.
Apparently, urban explorers – those people who crawl into a city’s guts, scale its peaks, and delve into its abandoned infrastructure – are the latest source of concern for counterterrorism experts.
Spencer Ackerman reports on Wired’s Danger Room blog that the National Counterterrorism Center put out a one-page advisory (PDF) last November about the potential dangers posed by explorers who "seek illicit access to transportation and industrial facilities in urban areas." (The human figures in the illustrations are strangely reminiscent of those placed on New York rooftops by sculptor Antony Gormley as part of his 2010 project "Event Horizon.") The document was originally posted on the Public Intelligence site, which publishes stuff like this on the principle that "equal access to information is a human right."
Urban explorers, notes the NCTC documents somberly, are gathering data that could be used by terrorists seeking to target urban areas:
[They] frequently post photographs, video footage, and diagrams on line that could be used by terrorists to remotely identify and surveil potential targets. Advanced navigation and mapping technologies, including three dimensional modeling and geo-tagging, could aid terrorists in pinpointing locations in dense urban environments. Any suspicious UE activity should be reported to the nearest State and Major Area Fusion Center and to the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Let’s put aside for a moment just how creepy "State and Major Area Fusion Center" sounds (do you know where your nearest Fusion Center is so you can make those important reports?). One legitimate question is whether the material available to terrorists on sites mentioned by the NCTC, Place Hacking, Undercity.org, and Silent UK, poses much more of a threat to national security than the tourists taking selfies in front of Grand Central Terminal, or helicopters shooting news footage of traffic jams on the FDR. (Two of those three sites, by the way, are based in the UK.)
In New York, the authorities have tried to limit photography of key infrastructure in the past – most notably in the subway, a ban that has twice been considered and rejected in recent years (although that doesn’t stop cops from trying to enforce it). The truth is, photographs of potential terror targets – geotags and all – are so easily available at this point that trying to restrict certain categories of them just seems silly.
It may be counterproductive as well. The urban explorers who hack into their cities could be seen by governments as potential allies in the fight against terrorism, rather than as enemies. Place Hacking’s Bradley Garrett, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, pointed this out in a comment on the Public Intelligence site:
What urban explorers are doing by sneaking into places is expressing deep admiration for their environment and its history. They are participatory citizens who take an active interest in their city and inspire others to playfully and creatively engage with their surroundings. They also have a strong sense of community, the very thing that makes a city safer.
Countless historical precedents show that when and if terrorists strike, they will do so pretty much out in the open, aiming to inflict maximum human casualties – an attack is as much psychological as physical. Let’s take a metro tunnel as an example, which you suggest could be targeting for “disruption of service because of access to electrical, ventilation, or signal control rooms.” Why would you study urban explorer’s photos to find a way to abseil down a ventilation shaft into an abandoned tube station to disrupt a signal? This would be incredibly time-consuming, difficult and not very effective, especially when you can walk into a train with a valid ticket and an organic peroxide–based device in a rucksack. You may remember this happened in here in the UK on the 7th July 2005 that killed 52 people.
You know what your best defence against terrorism is? A bunch of people who love their city, paying attention, with cameras. That’s a perfect description of urban explorers.
The title of the NCTC one-pager, “Urban Exploration Offers Insight Into Critical Infrastructure Vulnerabilities,” suggests that someone in the agency is aware on some level that there is knowledge to be gained here – not by terrorists, but by the government.
Another commenter on the Public Intelligence site put it this way:
See, these explorers you’re afraid of — they’re finding old abandoned areas that you and everyone else have forgotten about. They’re finding the weak points in buildings and cities. And they’re doing it for free, despite the possible danger. Now, you can either shut these people down — OR, you can gather the information they find, and use it to your own advantage against terrorists. I’m sure some of these people would love to be rewarded for their efforts. …
Think about it. You don’t want to squander a valuable resource.
The U.S. government hasn't exactly had a great record when it comes to making use of the valuable resources embodied in computer hackers. Maybe it's no surprise that its approach to place hackers is similarly clumsy.