Arms Control in the Information Age: Harnessing "Sisu"

Rose Gottemoeller
Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Finnish Institute for International Affairs
Helsinki, Finland
August 29, 2012

Thank you for inviting me to speak here at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs. This is my first visit to Finland and it is an absolutely lovely place. This nation has been a strong partner for the United States in pushing for a safer, more secure world, whether through diplomacy, peacekeeping or arms control efforts.

I would like to start out by saying that this is not a policy speech; this is an ideas speech. The United States has an ambitious arms control agenda and as such, we are doing some big thinking. I know Finns are no strangers to big thinking, so I think I am in the right place to discuss arms control in the information age.

The Challenges Ahead

It has been over 3 years since President Obama made his now-famous speech in Prague, in which he stated that the United States would seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. That speech was not just a rhetorical gesture; the Prague Agenda is a step by step path to the elimination of nuclear weapons. For the first two years of my service in the Administration, I worked on one step in that path – the New START Treaty. I am happy to report that Treaty has now been in force for over 18 months and its implementation is going very well. Both the United States and Russia are benefitting from the enhanced predictability it provides, which in turn enhances security for both nations and the world.

In the context of moving the President’s overall nuclear policy agenda forward, the entry into force of New START is just the beginning. In order to reach our goals, we are going to have to think bigger and bolder. Indeed, persistence, determination and willpower will be important to the next steps in arms control. I believe the Finns have the perfect term for what it will take: “sisu.”

As we look towards the next steps in reductions, it is clear that there will be new challenges facing us. We have not tried to limit non-deployed or non-strategic weapons before, which President Obama called for the day he signed New START. We are thinking about how we would verify reductions in those categories and people have different ideas about what terms like ‘non-strategic’ even mean. Even more complicated: the lower the numbers of nuclear weapons and the smaller the components, the harder it will be to effectively verify compliance.

New Concepts

With this is mind, I have been challenging myself to think about how we use the knowledge from our past together with the new tools of the information age. The seed of an idea was planted in my mind in Geneva during the New START negotiations. As we considered verification mechanisms for New START, it occurred to me that, by and large, we were still thinking about verification through the lens of the 1970’s. The advancements in technology since then have been nothing short of revolutionary, but it wasn’t quite clear how to incorporate these advancements into an effective verification regime.

It was actually a conversation with my two tech-guru sons over the dinner table that helped to further develop my thoughts on the subject. We discussed the incorporation of open source technologies – including social networking – into the verification of arms control and nonproliferation treaties.

Our new reality is a smaller, increasingly-networked world where the average citizen connects to other citizens in cyberspace hundreds of times each day. These people exchange and share ideas on a wide variety of topics: why not put this vast problem-solving entity to good use?

Today, any event, anywhere on the planet, could be broadcast globally in seconds. That means it is harder to hide things. When it is harder to hide things, it is easier to be caught. The neighborhood gaze is a powerful tool, and it can help us make sure that countries are following the rules of arms control treaties and agreements.

I look out at a crowd like you and realize that I don’t need to convince you that the technologies of the 21st century are changing the world as we know it. Finland has been a leading force in innovation in the information age. Over 95% of Finns have access to the internet and broadband access is now considered a legal right. It was not too many generations ago that Finland was a primarily agrarian state and now it is an economic powerhouse, with cutting-edge research and development. I am always amazed that Nokia went from making rubber boots to revolutionizing the communications world with its inexpensive and efficient cellular phones. It is this kind of creativity and adaptability that will be needed as we think about how to verify reductions going forward.

Of course, I should caveat that this is not actually a new idea. Renowned physicist and Nobel-laureate Joseph Rotblat proposed the concept of involving everyday citizens in the verification of arms control agreements back in the 1960’s. But without the tools to “crowd-source” verification, the idea languished. In the 1990s, Joseph Rotblat revived the idea of establishing an international system for public reporting and whistle-blowing as a complement to technological verification. Rotblat termed this concept “societal verification,” to reflect the idea that entire communities of non-experts could be involved. While Rotblat and others saw that the new global political conditions could be fertile ground for cultivating societal verification, there was still a need for technical tools. Today, we may finally have those tools.

New Possibilities

So now, armed with an idea and technological capacity, we can start to think about the possibilities.

Social verification can take place on a scale that moves from active participation, like public reporting and crowd-sourced mapping and analysis, or to passive participation, like ubiquitous sensing or data mining and analytics.

On this scale, the open source information technologies in use can improve arms control verification in at least two ways: either by generating new information, or by analyzing information that already is out there.

Let me give you some examples, to give you an idea what I’m talking about.

In 2009, in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Internet, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a competition where 10 red weather balloons were moored at visible fixed locations around the continental United States. The first team to identify the location of all 10 balloons won a sizable cash prize--$40,000. Over 4,300 teams composed of an estimated 2 million people from 25 countries took part in the challenge. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won the challenge, identifying all of the balloon locations in an astonishing time of 8 hours and 52 minutes. Of course, to win in such a short time or complete the challenge at all, the MIT team did not “find” the balloons themselves. They tapped into social networks using a unique incentive structure that not only incentivized people to identify a balloon location, but also incentivized people to recruit others to the team. Their win showed the enormous potential of social networking, and also demonstrated how incentives can motivate large populations to work toward a common goal.

Social networking is already being incorporated into local safety systems. RAVEN911—the Regional Asset Verification & Emergency Network—is a multilayer mapping tool that supports emergency first response in Cincinnati, Ohio. RAVEN911 uses live data feeds and intelligence gathered through Twitter to provide details that cannot be given on an everyday geographic map, such as the location of downed electric power lines and flooded roads. Authorities are cooperating with communities in Southwestern Ohio, Southeastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky to develop and implement this emergency management system, in order to help fire departments assess the risks and potential dangers before arriving on the scene of an accident. This open source system gives emergency responders a common operating picture, to better execute time-critical activities, such as choosing evacuation routes out of flooded areas.

In addition to collecting useful data, the ability to identify patterns and trends in social networks could aid the arms control verification process. In the most basic sense, social media can draw attention to both routine and abnormal events. We may be able to mine Twitter data to understand where strange effluents are flowing, to recognize if a country has an illegal chemical weapons program or to recognize unexpected patterns of industrial activity at a missile production plant. In this way, we may be able to ensure better compliance with existing arms control treaties and regimes, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Now, how could approaches such as this work, specifically in the arms control context?

Let’s just imagine that a country, to establish its bona fides in a deep nuclear reduction environment, wishes to open itself to a verification challenge, recruiting its citizens and their iPhones to help prove that it is not stashing extra missiles in the woods, for example, or a fissile material production reactor in the desert. Of course, some form of international supervision would likely be required, to ensure the legitimacy of the challenge and its procedures. And we would have to consider whether such a challenge could cope with especially covert environments, such as caves or deep underground facilities.

Sound far-fetched? Just consider that even today, tablets such as your iPad have tiny accelerometers installed – that’s what tells the tablet which way is up. But the accelerometers also have the capability to detect small shakes, like an earth tremor.

Now, imagine a whole community of tablet users, all containing an “earth shake” app, dispersed randomly around the country, and connected into a centralized network node. An individual shake could be something as simple as bumping your iPad on a table. But a whole network of tablets, all shaking at virtually the same time? That tells you that something happened; knowing where all the tablets are and the exact time they started shaking can help you to geo-locate the event. It could be an earthquake, or it could be an illegal nuclear test. Of course, other sensors and analysis would have to be brought to bear to figure out the difference.

This is called “ubiquitous sensing,” that is, collecting data and basic analysis through sensors on smartphones and other mobile-computing devices. These sensors would allow citizens to contribute to detecting potential treaty violations, and could build a bridge to a stronger private-public partnership in the realm of treaty verification.

The Challenges Ahead

Of course, for any of this to work, there are technical, legal and political barriers ahead that would need to be overcome—no easy feat to be sure.

On the technical front, it would be necessary to work together to make sure nations cannot spoof or manipulate the public verification challenges that they devise. We also have to bear in mind there could be limitations based on the freedoms available to the citizens of a given country.

On the legal front, there are many questions that must be confronted about active vs. passive participation. How can we prevent governments from extracting information from citizens without their knowledge, or manipulating results collected in databases? Further, in some circumstances, how can active participants be sheltered from reproach by authorities? It may be possible, through careful handling and management, to mask sources, even if locations are public.

On the political front, we cannot assume that information will always be so readily available. As nations and private entities continue to debate the line between privacy and security, it is possible to imagine that we are living in a golden age of open source information that will be harder to take advantage of in future. In the end, the goal of using open source information technology and social networks should be to add to our existing arms control monitoring and verification capabilities, not to supersede them.

Joining Forces

Even with great ideas and fool-proof planning, another issue that we have to consider is: how do we create, organize and, when necessary, fund efforts such as these? Developing partnerships among governments, civil society groups, philanthropic organizations and private businesses will be the key to moving ahead.

We are just now starting to think about how governments can actively enlist their publics to help prove that they are in compliance with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations. To this end, on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State launched the “Innovation in Arms Control Challenge” asking, “How Can the Crowd Support Arms Control Transparency Efforts?” We want to get ideas on if and how the everyday citizen can help support arms control transparency efforts. While the contest can only be won by U.S. citizens or permanent residents, we encourage anyone who is interested in the subject to participate. You can read more about the challenge on our website:

The Future

As I said at the outset, this is not about policy; this is about coming up with the bold ideas that will shape policy in the future. As governments around the world work to enhance and expand our arms control and nonproliferation efforts, we will need your help to find new ways to use the amazing information tools at our disposal. It is increasingly apparent that we are going to need every tool we have, and many we have not yet developed or perhaps even thought of, to fulfill the Prague Agenda. We will need “sisu”.

Thank you again for inviting me here to speak. I would now love to take some questions.