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Social Media, New Tech Could Support WMD Monitoring, U.S. Official Says

A capacity to discern large-scale consistencies or developments in Internet communications could assist the identification of secret WMD activities around the world, U.S. acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said on Sunday (see GSN, Feb. 9).

"Social media can draw attention to both routine and abnormal events," Gottemoeller said in remarks released by the State Department. "We may be able to mine Twitter data to understand where strange effluents are flowing, to recognize if a country has an illegal chemical weapons program; or to recognize unexpected patterns of industrial activity at a missile production plant. In this way, we may be able to ensure better compliance with existing arms control treaties and regimes such as the Chemical Weapons Convention.

"The synergy is stunning: private citizens may contribute to monitoring for illicit weapons of mass destruction wherever they are found," the official said at the Hay Festival in Wales.

Gottemoeller suggested a country might enlist its inhabitants "and their iPhones to help prove that it is not stashing extra missiles in the woods, for example, or a fissile material production reactor in the desert.

"Of course, some form of international supervision would likely be required, to ensure the legitimacy of the challenge and its procedures," she said, adding it is uncertain whether such a practice would prove useful in surveillance of possible hidden operations.

A number of mobile electronic computing devices "have tiny accelerometers installed -- that’s what tells the tablet which way is up," Gottemoeller noted. "But the accelerometers also have the capability of detecting small shakes, like an earth tremor."

Simultaneous reports of movement by a significant quantity of such devices would suggest "something happened," she said.

"It could be an earthquake, or it could be an illegal nuclear test," the official said. "These sensors would allow citizens to contribute to detecting potential treaty violations, and could build a bridge to a stronger private-public partnership in the realm of treaty verification," she said.

No initiative to date has asked individuals to volunteer their electronic equipment for weapons-related monitoring, but the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has done so successfully for its own purposes, she said.

"Of course, for any of this to work, there are technical, legal and political barriers ahead that would need to be overcome -- no easy feat to be sure," Gottemoeller said. "On the technical front, it would be necessary to work together to make sure nations cannot spoof or manipulate the public verification challenges that they devise. We also have to bear in mind there could be limitations based on the freedoms available to the citizens of a given country.

"On the legal front, there are many questions that must be confronted about active versus passive participation. How can we prevent governments from extracting information from citizens without their knowledge, or manipulating results collected in databases? Further, in some circumstances, how can active participants be sheltered from reproach by authorities? It may be possible, through careful handling and management, to mask sources, even if locations are public," the official said.

"On the political front, we cannot assume that information will always be so readily available. As nations and private entities continue to debate the line between privacy and security, it is possible to imagine that we are living in a golden age of open source information that will be harder to take advantage of in future. In the end, the goal of using open source information technology and social networks should be to add to our existing arms control monitoring and verification capabilities, not to supersede them.

"It is also important to remember that while we spend a lot of time focusing on nuclear weapons, the other weapons of mass destruction -- particularly biological weapons -- pose even greater challenges for arms control policy, because they are inherently dual-use assets and, thus, difficult to disentangle from normal industrial or commercial processes. Here, too, we need creative thinking about how to facilitate transparency in the biotech sector without compromising sensitive research and industrial practices, or proprietary information," the State Department official said.

Students obtaining initial four-year degrees in 2012 "have lived their entire lives in the years since the Cold War ended, yet they have inherited thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons," Gottemoeller said.

"We need to spur their interest -- and creativity -- in solving the problem of combating weapons of mass destruction," she said. "Approaching the rising generation on this issue through the lens of the information age may be one way to engage them" (U.S. State Department release, June 10).

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