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Machine Learning Boosts Capacity to Expose Illicit Nuclear Trade, New Study Finds

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Process Identified Previously Unknown Companies Procuring Sensitive Technology

Washington, DC – A new joint report from the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Signals in the Noise: Preventing Nuclear Proliferation with Machine Learning & Publicly Available Information, provides a blueprint for identifying high-risk or illicit nuclear trade activities at scale. By using machine learning techniques to analyze commercially available trade data, analysts uncovered previously unknown companies that constitute a nuclear proliferation risk from millions of trade transactions.

In the process, C4ADS and NTI determined that automated data preparation and analysis could save hundreds of analyst hours and help identify twice as many potential high-risk entities as their previous efforts had through more manual approaches. Over the course of research, the U.S. government added to an export control list as many as ten companies identified through these approaches.

“Illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and technologies around the world—whether by terrorist organizations, rogue states, criminal enterprises, or even unwitting mules—poses a serious threat to global security,” NTI Co-Chair and CEO Ernest J. Moniz writes in the report’s Foreword. “Those who engage in such criminal acts evade detection by operating in the shadows and in plain sight. New tools can help prevent nuclear proliferation by revealing footprints left by bad actors and to monitor and verify future arms control and export control agreements.”

The report recommends leaders of nuclear non-proliferation efforts around the world:

  • Integrate publicly available information more deeply into existing monitoring and verification regimes
  • Use modern analytical approaches, including machine learning, to enable using big data at scale
  • Build partnerships to allow analysts to access shared data
  • Embrace the use of publicly available information and modern analytical tools for future international non-proliferation initiatives.

About the Authors

Jason Arterburn is a program director at C4ADS where he leads the counterproliferation program focusing particularly on China, North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan.

Erin D. Dumbacher is a senior program officer at NTI focusing on technology and nuclear security. With Page Stoutland, she co-authored a recent NTI report, U.S. Nuclear Weapons Modernization: Security and Policy Implications of Integrating Digital Technology (2020).

Page Stoutland, Ph.D., is responsible for NTI’s scientific and technically related projects designed to strengthen nuclear security and reduce risks around the world. He co-authored Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age (2018).

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) is a nonprofit global security organization focused on reducing nuclear and biological threats imperiling humanity.

The Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting on global conflict and transnational security issues.

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