May 3, 2016
Arms Control and Social Networking – Crowdsourcing Intelligence
Jan 3, 2013
By Matthew Fargo
Is social networking a useful or reliable means to verify arms control agreements? The idea of using a network of concerned citizens to support arms control has been bandied about in arms control circles for more than fifty years. With the advent of information and communications technology, international communication and information sharing has become nearly instantaneous. Recognizing these developments, support for using the power of social media has swelled in recent years. Indeed, empowering a populace to support the verification mechanisms of arms control agreements might be an innovative confidence-building measure for arms control negotiators, but it is unrealistic to assert that such efforts could provide the same level of confidence as more intrusive inspection regimes. Turning vast numbers of people into whistleblowers might inadvertently and unnecessarily put private citizens in harm’s way, and the idea of using individual citizens to support nuclear arms control remains no closer to realization than it was when it was first introduced in 1958.
Active vs. Passive Data Collection
Two distinct methods of data collection could be used to harness the power of social media: passive and active. Data could be collected passively through the use of algorithms to synthesize and analyze data already widely available on the internet, sifting through Twitter and other social media services to gain intelligence on foreign policy relevant matters as it is discussed in the public domain. Data could also be collected passively by asking individual citizens to install software on their personal electronic devices that allowed government or international organizations to gather information from the devices’ on-board sensors, provided a technical method of verification is established that could be supported by those systems available.
Active data collection would require participants to become, essentially, “citizen spies”, reporting on observable developments that might contravene arms control or arms reduction agreements made by their government. If such a network relied upon “insiders” who worked within the military establishment in some capacity, informants could be charged with espionage and arrested and perhaps even executed. Alternatively, active data collection could rely on the reports of private citizens. Unfortunately, public knowledge, let alone genuine understanding, of arms control agreements, delivery systems and other attendant technologies is generally reserved to only a handful of relatively insular communities. Furthermore, relying upon a medium rife with misinterpretation and misinformation to verify arms control efforts may be severely misguided, particularly when such a process relies on fallible laypersons.
Sensors and Satellites
Despite these initial reservations, there may yet be potential applications for social verification mechanisms that do have merit. Seismic monitoring, a potentially essential verification mechanism if the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) enters into force, conceivably represents one such opportunity. Even if the CTBT doesn’t enter into force, seismic monitoring enhanced by “ubiquitous sensing” could provide the international scientific community with valuable additional data points that could help verify if nuclear testing has taken place. Accordingly, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization’s (CTBTO) International Monitoring System (IMS) already utilizes 170 dedicated seismic monitoring stations around the world to detect nuclear tests to accomplish this. As one looks at the map of IMS stations around the world, it is apparent that there are potential gaps – gaps that could perhaps be filled by a ubiquitous sensor network. Building an integrated network of citizen monitoring stations by using on-board gyroscopes and accelerometers present in many personal electronic devices, could theoretically gather information from thousands – perhaps millions – of additional data points. The data would never have to be interpreted by the individuals themselves – it could be automatically forwarded to the CTBTO for record-keeping and eventual analysis to assist in the detection of nuclear detonations. However, the potential difficulty of verifying adherence to the CTBT is only one of the many arguments against ratification of the treaty, and the establishment of ubiquitous sensing networks alone would be insufficient to convince opponents of the treaty to ratify it. Furthermore, repressive and authoritarian governments – places where illicit nuclear tests would be most likely – are no strangers to internet censorship and might elect to immediately ban any of the “apps” that would facilitate this data collection, or, alternatively, block internet users from accessing the internet protocol addresses used by the CTBTO or others to gather data.
But should private citizens help collect data on military-industrial activity? Social networking and widespread internet connectivity have already enhanced the ability of military enthusiasts to report and discuss production trends and testing of conventional weapons and materiel. The internet is replete with evidence of the usefulness of digital information disseminated to nonmilitary audiences, but it is unclear how important or useful this method of intelligence gathering may be to U.S. intelligence or defense communities. Enterprising citizens could potentially surveil military-industrial facilities, tracking shipments and other activities from afar, but without direct access their observations would contribute little to existing means of intelligence gathering without exposing them to retribution from government security services.
Observations of other difficult to conceal weapons tests – such as ballistic missile launches – could also be monitored by a diffuse network of informants, but would be categorically – and perhaps legally – distinct from data-driven digital information collection. Moreover, ground observers unaided by radar or other tracking data could provide only rudimentary information on these kinds of tests, and U.S. National Technical Means (NTM) likely already perform this mission. More technology-intensive programs like the Satellite Sentinel Project that utilize commercial satellites to identify troop movements in Sudan could contribute to conventional disarmament and cease-fire verification efforts elsewhere in support of NTM, but satellite imagery will never be able to collect the same level of comprehensive data as intrusive on-site inspections – the “gold standard” of arms control verification, but also the most difficult to achieve.
Due to the highly complex nature of the weapons, delivery systems, and facilities that must be inspected to verify arms control agreements, only highly-skilled technicians and experts are involved. Moreover, unless they have been deactivated, the sites and systems involved are almost invariably classified and are off-limits to the general public. Verification operations often take place behind cordoned-off fence lines on military or other restricted installations, and ordinary citizens have no means to visually confirm that arms control or disarmament obligations are being met without potentially putting themselves in significant danger. In addition, if a determined state violates the terms of an arms control or disarmament agreement and successfully deceives trained arms inspectors attempting to verify the terms of the treaty, what reasonable chance do private citizens have to identify the duplicity? If private citizens endeavored to actively collect data to verify arms control agreements they may have no idea where to look or how to identify aberrations. Unfortunately, nations disinterested in transparency will simply not agree to arms control agreements with intrusive verification mechanisms, and no measure of passive data collection can match the value of information obtained by on-site inspections.
Though it’s an innovative idea that taps into the wave of social networking exploitation and integration that has become a topic du jour, the vast majority of people in this country – to say nothing of the politicians and populations of countries of interest – such as North Korea, Syria, or Iran – where successful social media efforts could have a meaningful impact – likely have little interest or concern in such an endeavor. As Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller has indicated, technology can improve the ability of international inspectors in verification and monitoring processes and should continue to do so. However, it may be wisest to leave the science, engineering and arms control verification to those political and military specialists with this expertise. U.S. national security interests would be better served by devoting money to other trust- and confidence-building programs that will set the foundation for future arms control agreements and enhance transparency with other nuclear weapon states.
Matthew Fargo is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.