One Low-Tech Reason To Be Optimistic About Nuclear Arms Controls

Nuclear devices have gotten smaller, simpler, and easier to deploy, so the federal government is crowdsourcing arms control in the hopes that regular smartphones can help authorities track dangerous devices.

One Low-Tech Reason To Be Optimistic About Nuclear Arms Controls

Back in March, the State Department’s head of Arms Control and International Security arrived at SXSW with a mission: to track and contain the world’s nuclear arsenal.


And she wants you to help.

In an era of diminishing budgets, Undersecretary Rose Gottemoeller is challenging the tech-savvy public to come up with new and exciting ways to get citizens involved in arms control–a nascent crowdsourcing strategy known as “societal verification.”

Unlike other UN-level international weapons restrictions, nuclear weapons are restricted only by nation-to-nation treaties, such as the New START treaty between the U.S. and Russia–but unlike the agreements of yore, this latest agreement, which allows flyover observation of runways, is somewhat de-fanged by the advancements in nuclear weapon deployability. In short–the ways of creating nuclear weapons have democratized, so the concession of superficial observations like runway flyover inspections to count nuclear weapons-deployable bombers or submarines is now only one piece of the international arms control puzzle.

Instead, societal verification seeks to tap the rapid information transfer of Twitter and the activism of the Arab Spring. Gottemoeller’s big question: How, and with what tools, will global citizens help monitor the dangers of nuclear arms?

Gottemoeller’s first official open call to the public was last year’s inaugural “Innovation in Arms Control” challenge, asking “How Can the Crowd Support Arms Control Transparency Efforts?” Out of that broad challenge, over 500 submissions proposed apps, tools, and websites to draw tech and nuclear experts into the discussion of how best to involve the public.

The winner, graduate student of Monterey Institute of International Studies Lovely Umayam, proposed Bombshelltoe, a website to outline and translate the arcane terminology and policy intricacies of the nuclear world into citizen-friendly fare, creating a space for the nuclear neophyte to understand what’s still at stake in the post-Cold War nuclear world.


How To Engage A Nuclear-Concerned Public

Societal verification was first mentioned in the ’70s as a form of nuclear monitoring by the public. It enjoyed a resurgence in the ’90s, but the current iteration was sparked in 2010, mostly due to technological advances in the private sector. Widely accessible services like Google Earth allow the public to jump into societal verification from their computers (examining and keeping tabs on nuclear facilities, for example), but excitement also stemmed from the widespread adoption of the smartphone, already at 21% of the U.S. wireless market in 2010.

Using their onboard accelerometers (to detect seismic activity) and cameras (to detect radioactivity), smartphones offer a ubiquitous platform to build accessible detection software. Coupled with data plans and 3G/4G network uplinks, software apps for smartphones have seemed like the zero-upgrade magic bullet that would eliminate the high cost-of-entry into the nuclear verification world.

What else does the public need besides a yes-or-no answer to “is that nuclear weapons-grade material over there?”

A lot of direction, parameters, and international volunteer safety, according to experts. Turns out that the nuclear community is not even close to solidly defining “societal verification.” There’s a reason that nuclear inspectors are highly trained: They know what to look for, and simply handing the public an app that detects nuclear material might result in misidentification or even reporting benign material–bananas, for example, have been known to set off nuclear material detectors at U.S. borders and ports. Without professional oversight, Umayam warns, the nuclear community risks a public prone to mobbing in tense situations: One need only look at Reddit’s crowdsourced investigation of surveillance photos immediately after the Boston Marathon Bombings, which led to borderline witch hunts for all manner of suspects, to be concerned about public-driven nuclear arms verification.

Then there’s the question of parameters: Just how much would the public be responsible for monitoring and verifying nuclear material activity? A coalition of academics, non-governmental organizations, nuclear policy experts, and likely Gottemoeller’s office would need to hash out what the public can and should be able to deliver. How much would they be supplementing professional arms control inspectors? If public volunteers err, who would be responsible and clean up the mess?

“This is why societal verification is hard,” Umayam said. “It feels like I’m talking about a unicorn because I don’t know what it looks like.”


These direct, insular questions belie societal verification’s international stage: In theory, public volunteers would be reporting on nuclear material movement around the globe–but anybody moving that material, from smugglers to governments, wants to keep that data under wraps. A professional arms control inspectors has governmental backing and agreed-upon treaty parameters, but public volunteers don’t yet enjoy those protections: In the event of capture or threat of violence from foreign governments or independent groups, who will protect them? The State Department?

It’s not that you couldn’t in theory have someone in North Korea or Iran to report on it–it’s how do you get a person to report on it and keep them safe, says Bryan Lee, Director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“Even if you get that information out,” Lee said, “we just don’t have a legal infrastructure when we think of arms control and nonproliferation to put its arms around what we think as societal verification.”

To say nothing of the admittedly pro-West stance these discussions of arms control and nonproliferation exhibit: Citizens of North Korea and Iran might be difficult to rope into societal verification at all due to the national pride that comes from state-sponsored nuclear weapons development. Either unwilling or endangered, societal verification outside reasonably democratic nuclear states like the U.S., U.K., and India would benefit immensely from anonymity–something the scientific community has already pioneered with the Citizen Science Alliance, a project crowdsourcing hub that galvanizes its benevolent users to sift through massive sets of data.

Why We Should Be Optimistic About Arms Control

Despite these myriad political, logistical, and legal issues, the arms control and nonproliferation communities are optimistic for the progress of societal verification, Lee said. Their current toy du jour is satellite technology–advances in geospatial tech have made things like Google Earth widely accessible, an open tech philosophy that excites the arms control community far more than other “big data” solutions quietly piping in smartphone data like, say, accelerometer readings to triangulate mysterious seismic activity (that could be illicit nuclear tests).

The arms control community hasn’t jumped onboard with a particular smartphone app (or similar societal verification tool) because there are so few deployed in the marketplace, but the community also knows that smartphones feature tech advancements that could inspire novel solutions in the years to come.


Though no “nuclear material detection” smartphone apps currently exist, GammaPix, a radiological detection app, just released a full version of their app after months tinkering with user feedback from using their free version. Dr. Eric Rubenstein, President of GammaPix parent company Image Insight, merged his image analysis experience as an academic astronomer with post-9/11 concerns for national security. GammaPix is the result of years of progress translating celestial radiation detection to smartphone use. Currently out for iPhone and Android, GammaPix uses the phone’s camera sensor to detect radiation–a simplification of almost a decade of research by Image Insight.

Though GammaPix also has radiation analysis for security cameras and laptop-mounted webcams, the smartphone apps have several modes, including an active scan and an upcoming update to the full version to passively scan the environment every half hour. Radiation hits the phone’s camera sensor regardless of its orientation, no point-and-shooting required–a big plus for the first responders and highway patrols Rubenstein has been chatting with who are interested in adopting GammaPix as part of their standard equipment. More rewarding has been the overwhelming response from Japanese users, who comprise 60% of GammaPix downloads: The failed public engagement by TEPCO after the Fukushima meltdown charged the public to take radiation security into their own hands, and GammaPix was their answer, Rubenstein said.

As for detecting nuclear radiation, however, GammaPix is not ideal–but neither would any potential smartphone software, Rubenstein noted: Without a specifically designed hardware add-on, smartphone camera sensor sensitivity is just too low to reliably detect the neutron flux that indicates plutonium or highly enriched uranium nuclear material. GammaPix might be able to detect some kinds of nuclear weapons, but it would appear as an anomalous radiation source.

Rubenstein proposed that, as smartphone technology advances, a new sensor in a next-gen phone might inadvertently be sensitive enough for a later GammaPix version to use for nuclear material detection; after all, when Rubenstein proposed the first versions of GammaPix to government agencies, smartphones didn’t even exist on the mainstream market.

Gottemoeller’s second annual “Innovation In Arms Control” challenge is directed toward proposals for new tech to help the professional inspectors that societal verification volunteers may, in the future, be helping, but Gottemoeller concedes that none of these will likely be a “silver bullet” app or tool. Bryan Lee agrees: While new tech ideas would drive the conversation forward, Lee is convinced that algorithmic data analysis still holds keys to tripping alarms when suspicious containers head to out-of-the-ordinary shipping locations, for example, or imitate Walmart’s micron-level supply chain management to discern anomalies.

“If you could get those same type of tools simplified and harmonized with supply chains across the world that would let us have comprehensive controls on the type of things,” Lee said. Or maybe we could get big banks, with their money laundering skills, to track down where all the funding for Iran’s nuclear weapons program is coming from?


Still, Lee is convinced that any shiny new tech addressing the issue of societal verification is a positive experience for the discussion of nuclear technology as a whole. In the meantime, the best tool available to get started with societal verification is knowledge–researching nuclear policy, understanding the particulars of arms control and nonproliferation agendas, and understanding just how important controlling nuclear weaponry is to ensuring a safer tomorrow.

[Image: Flickr user Zeesenboot]