Detecting Proliferation Risks through Public Data


Vast quantities of open source data and new digital and analytical tools offer untapped potential for helping to prevent and detect global nuclear proliferation.


Explore how open source data can be gathered, organized, and used to supplement traditional monitoring and verification of nonproliferation regimes.


Define whether and how the large quantities of trade, social media, and other public data can expose potentially illicit activity and bolster government’s work to detect and prevent proliferation.

Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology can reduce the risk of nuclear confrontations or accidents. International agreements, national laws and voluntary cooperation limit trade of sensitive materials, but these measures are showing signs of strain as technological advances make them more difficult to enforce. Open, increasingly digital data combined with tools for data analytics can supplement traditional nonproliferation efforts by detecting illicit proliferation.

Traditionally, proliferation detection has been the exclusive task of governments and international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Monitoring and verification of proliferation and arms control agreements have relied on tools such as monitored party declarations, on-site inspections, and national technical means. In our Cultivating Confidence series, NTI clarified the potential of “societal verification” given the expansion of digital media. In addition to a wealth of social media content, increased digitization of public records such as trade data, corporate registries and transport logs can provide visibility into potentially illicit networks or suspicious activity.

Consistent with NTI’s history of pursuing projects to encourage government action, NTI and C4ADS hope to build upon existing work in the field to demonstrate how use of publicly available data and network analysis techniques can supplement traditional monitoring and verification of international agreements. C4ADS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting on global conflict and transnational security issues. C4ADS uses cutting-edge technologies to analyze diverse data and seeks to engage with local and international audiences and produce innovative analysis.

Our ambition is to identify trends and risk factors in international trade of dual-use goods and potentially to uncover how individuals, entities, and networks facilitate potentially illicit activity in a digital age. The project will take advantage of the large quantities of data that are generated around the world every day (e.g., financial records, scientific publications, property records and registrations, import/export data, shipping data, etc.) as well as novel, proprietary technology that permit network analysis and facilitate investigation of potentially illicit activity.

At the end of this project, NTI and C4ADS hope to have developed: (1) case studies of the global flow of dual-use goods of interest for non-proliferation, (2) examples of patterns and behavior to which controls could adapt, and (3) an understanding of how publicly available data could be used to monitor or verify international agreements. 

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