Working with Silicon Valley on New Approaches to Tackling Weapons of Mass Destruction Challenges

By: Jody Daniel, Director of the Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau’s Office of Verification, Planning, and Outreach (AVC/VPO) and Zvika Krieger, the U.S. Department of State’s Representative to Silicon Valley and Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation.

This past April, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and then Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller convened technologists, entrepreneurs, coders, scientists, and hackers from across Silicon Valley to brainstorm on new approaches to detecting and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The objective of this day-long workshop, “The Hunt for WMDs: Leveraging New Technology,” was to foster collaboration with communities that are not often involved in tackling this dire threat. The Department wanted to convey that the government does not have a monopoly on developing the solutions to the challenges posed by WMD proliferation. The workshop generated a number of out-of-the-box ideas on how to leverage geospatial data, machine-learning analysis, crowdsourcing, social media, the Internet of Things (IoT), and other tools to bring our non-proliferation regime into the 21st century.

Both Deputy Secretary Blinken and Under Secretary Gottemoeller understood that tapping into the innovation of Silicon Valley requires more than a one-off meeting; it requires a process that approaches the challenge in a fundamentally different way and engages new partners. As Deputy Secretary Blinken explained to Fast Company, his hope was to institutionalize collaboration between government and the technology community to tackle this problem. The April 2016 workshop was just the beginning.

Last month, the State Department reconvened two dozen participants from that original workshop — together with new partners from government, the national labs, academia, and the NGO community — to help turn the ideas from the workshop into reality. We heard from a number of organizations that are now partnering with the tech sector to launch pilot projects ranging from early concept design to successful field tests.

Experts from the Monterey-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) presented on their efforts to build a crowd-sourcing platform, Geo4Nonpro, to analyze satellite imagery for WMD proliferation-related indicators. Building on the success of previous “citizen science” efforts, the platform aims to explore whether a large number of amateur but concerned netizens, many of whom have no professional training in imagery analysis, can also accurately identify suspicious activity much like the current surveillance efforts conducted by a small group of highly trained experts. A beta version of the platform is up and running. The project has already generated significant excitement and engagement from non-proliferation experts, and CNS is eager to work with technology and design experts to improve the platform’s interface to make it easier and more appealing for non-experts to use.

CNS experts showcased a second project analyzing flows of “dual use materials” — commercial products that can also be used in nuclear weapons programs — sold via online marketplaces. Most of the sites that carry these products do so out of ignorance rather than nefarious motives, and would welcome information about regulated products being sold on their platforms. Working together with a Silicon Valley data analytics firm, the team was able to identify relevant, publicly available information from e-commerce sites and create algorithms to flag potentially suspicious products. They are looking to deepen collaboration with these websites in order to obtain more detailed and current data so that these searches can be conducted in real-time as new products are added. They also hope to automate the process so it can be used by the companies themselves.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is partnering with Technology for Global Security to explore whether we can gather useful nuclear testing data from an array of seismic sensors deployed by citizens around the world. Building on initial discussions at the 2015 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Science and Technology Conference (slides) and the April workshop about utilizing inexpensive, robust sensors, their simulations over the past few months have concluded that an array of small sensors could enable an eight-fold improvement in detecting nuclear explosions while also providing early warning for earthquakes and tsunamis. These results were later presented at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco (see abstract and slides). The team is now exploring low-cost hardware and software design specifications for deploying these seismometers in homes, as well as various algorithms for using them in both nuclear test detection and home seismic safety applications.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Department’s tech innovation unit, provided the group an overview of the Agency’s Sigma program, an effort to enhance capabilities to detect nuclear terrorism threats through an array of portable networked detectors. They have tested the approach in over 10 pilot experiments, including a recent test in Washington, DC, with more than 1,000 mobile detectors deployed throughout the city. DARPA’s goal is to fully transition the project to other government agencies and private companies by 2018.

Following in-depth discussions about these four innovative projects, we explored the potential synergies and sequencing of these projects along the threat continuum, the need for non-proliferation experts to plug into current industry discussions about IoT standards, and the importance of integrating these nuclear detection capabilities with existing tools and consumer products.

This meeting was the next step in what will be a deepening collaboration with Silicon Valley, through which technology companies can play a role in helping shape the future of our efforts to curb the proliferation of WMD. The Department plans to hold another follow-up discussion in early 2017 to discuss next steps on the above-mentioned projects, and also to exchange ideas on other projects or challenges worth exploring.

We are also eager to get proposals from Silicon Valley companies for our Key Verification Assets Fund (V Fund), which provides funding to new technologies that support the verification of, and compliance with, existing or future potential arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament commitments. For individuals interested in participating in the Innovation Forum effort or getting involved in any of the projects above, please e-mail collaborativeinnovation@state.gov.

This initiative is part of the State Department’s Innovation Forum focused on building bridges between innovators and policymakers. The State Department now has an official presence in Silicon Valley that is facilitating collaboration with the technology sector — from established companies to nascent start-ups — on tackling global challenges. This presence has allowed the Department to approach the challenges posed by treaty verification and proliferation detection in new ways. Our hope is that by partnering with NGOs, academics, and entrepreneurs, we will be able to harness emerging technologies and fresh thinking to advance U.S. nonproliferation efforts far into the future.


This entry originally appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official Blog.