Recruiting Silicon Valley to Join The Fight Against WMD Threats

Necessity — as the saying goes — is the mother of invention.

I’ve been working to reduce the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction for my entire career and as I look out at the challenges that remain ahead of us, it is clear that the traditional means of tracking nuclear weapons are not keeping pace with the evolving threat. New tools have become an absolute necessity.

My lifetime of work on these issues has also made it clear that Washington, DC does not have a lock on invention.

That is why, five years ago at Stanford University, I issued an “intellectual call to arms” on applying emerging technologies to our work on reducing WMD threats. I was certain that we would not be able to make more significant nuclear reductions if we continued to primarily rely on verifying those reductions with technology largely developed in the 1970s. As units of nuclear material continue to get smaller and harder to track, our tools for verification and monitoring need to improve and expand.

In the five years since, I have talked about this issue with students and scientists, global leaders and community activists from around the world. Those conversations helped inform the Department of State workshop on “The Hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction: Leveraging New Technology.”

Scenes from the Workshop.

Partnering with Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Preventive Defense Project, as well as Technology for Global Security, the State Department assembled a diverse group of experts from academia, national labs, non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, foundations, U.S. military, and other U.S. government agencies — as well as entrepreneurs, engineers, and other leaders from the tech industry who had never worked on nuclear issues, but whose expertise could provide new perspectives on the challenge. Participants ranged from storied leaders in the field such as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, to young and energetic students with their fingers on the pulse of the information revolution.

A brainstorming session.

This workshop was part of a broader effort by the State Department, called the Innovation Forum, to harness the creativity of problem-solvers worldwide to generate new solutions to global challenges. As Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained in his opening remarks, “Technology has long been a tool of foreign policy…but today, it is something much, much more. From cyberspace to outer space, it is fundamentally altering the DNA of our foreign policy — disrupting, accelerating, or creating new horizons for diplomacy.”

These quarterly Innovation Forum workshops enable innovators to inform foreign policy at the highest levels, while helping government leaders outline foreign policy priorities, in order to spark and accelerate new ideas. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is among the U.S. government’s most urgent priorities. “The question, the challenge, the goal we are discussing here is nothing short of a safer, more secure world for every single citizen of the world,” Blinken said.

Deputy Secretary Blinken speaking about the critical need for innovation.

Work like this is already underway in other sectors, and the WMD policy community has a lot to learn from others already tackling the problems of monitoring and verification. The environmental community, for example, has long been tracking and tracing polluters, wildlife traffickers, and illicit loggers. The U.S. government’s Sea Scout Program is now working to track illegal fishing worldwide, aided by state-of-the-art tools developed by technologists at Google, Catapult, Sky Truth, Vulcan, and others. On the commercial side, if Amazon can track billions of small objects, surely we can figure out how to better track WMDs.

The goal of the workshop was to identify a number of ways in which new technology stemming from the information revolution could help. Participants focused on the challenges of how to use data to verify elimination or control of nuclear weapons; and how to use “big data” to monitor nuclear material and be able to detect when countries or individuals are using legal tools for illegal purposes.

Participants also explored the challenges of gathering credible data. If data is collected from the public, for example, citizens must be able to trust that the recipient of information, be it a U.S. or international organization, can be a faithful arbiter. This would be the case with public measurements of radiation levels or seismic data collected through accelerometers on smartphones, for example. That trust would need to go both ways — governments who encourage the public collection of WMD-related data would want to know that the data is reliable and real.

In any effort to engage the public on finding nuclear weapons or material, the group agreed that it would be necessary to protect citizens from potential reprisals by their governments for reporting or “spying” on activities.

Despite political, technical and legal challenges, there is broad agreement that data stemming from the information revolution can help track nuclear activities. We don’t have to choose one route. Small satellites and overhead imagery could be used to give greater fidelity to data that’s already published by non-governmental actors, such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Security Index.

The attendees then used the group discussion to zero in on three primary categories of data that would be helpful in the tracking of nuclear weapons: visual data, social media, and sensor data. Workshop participants divided up into three groups to further explore the challenges and opportunities within each data category, and then develop pilot projects to test key hypotheses about the potential utility and feasibility of public collection of that data. Going forward, we will work with the participants on the further formation of these ideas and projects.

A Workshop participant presenting the Sensor Data working group’s pilot project idea.

I was so pleased to see the kind of creative thinking that can occur when nonproliferation experts work together with experts from the tech community. From here, we hope that the conversations and connections made at the workshop will inspire more work in this field.

With a team of wonks and geeks working together, the inventions we need cannot be far away!

For a full read-out of the event, click here.