Arms Control through Societal Verification: Invaluable or Ineffective?

In “Societal Verification: Leveraging the Information Revolution for Arms Control Verification,” authors Hinderstein and Hartigan propose a rather exciting idea: that arms control verification, like telecommunications or online shopping, could be transformed by the advent of the “Information Age.” Certainly it’s not an entirely novel concept; H&H mention the example of Internet users assisting in the analysis of vast amounts of satellite imagery for various purposes. Nor is their proposal ill timed. The authors cite the transition to fewer individual warheads as well as the need for multilateral verification as factors that will drive a greater need for verification.

Yet upon closer inspection, such an approach may not be quite as effective as it appears. The authors lay out a number of potential uses for societal verification, which consist primarily of “defining patterns,” “looking for shifts,” “identifying outliers,” “filling in blind spots,” and “detecting signals.” Of these, the ones dealing with outliers and signals would appear to be most easily applied to societal verification; informing a large group of people to be on the lookout for a specific item or activity (such as in the DARPA red balloon challenge) could be highly effective. However, establishing patterns, especially around a heavily guarded facility such as an enrichment plant, could be considerably more difficult. If our societal “informants” are to be employed in the very casual way that this approach necessitates (otherwise, we’re simply hiring less-skilled inspectors), they’re unlikely to be willing to spend the time or effort required to map out specific goings-on or movements over a long period of time. Detecting changes in these patterns would present similar problems, as well as requiring that such patterns be supplied to the informants, introducing information leakage/confidentiality concerns.

The authors’ own list of challenges that such programs would face offers yet more discouragement. Validation is a particularly worrying issue; putting one’s trust in a single report of an inconsistency or treaty violation is a dicey proposition indeed when nuclear issues hang in the balance, and while overlapping reports can partially negate this, the potential for “disinformation campaigns,” as the authors term them, seems overwhelmingly high. Indeed, the monitored country need only hire a few of its citizens to relay cross-corroborating false reports to ruin such a system. Interference is also a concern; the authors mention that in some countries, Internet access could be temporarily restricted, thwarting continual verification efforts, while in others (such as China), governments may closely track users’ online activities, and punish those who break the law. This concern in particular receives far too little consideration; if reporting on nuclear activity could be considered treason by a particularly authoritarian regime (and really, is relaying information on the military activity of your own country to a rival’s government in exchange for compensation not tantamount to espionage?), who is going to be willing to risk imprisonment or even death for what would inevitably be a very small reward? Additionally, some of the countries that the Western world is most concerned about having/acquiring nuclear weapons are so restrictive that very, very few of their citizens have access to the sort of open internet access that this method requires (North Korea is a good example of such a country.)

The above concerns should not be interpreted as a total dismissal of societal verification. Simple crowd-sourced analysis of satellite imagery has the potential to be of great value for arms verification, as does the “outlier” spotting method (provided that the aforementioned interference concerns are overcome.) Certainly, with the increased demands for verification, and the vast resources required for traditional verification approaches to meet this need, we cannot afford to overlook any potential solution. I believe that societal verification has significant potential, but we must not overlook its weaknesses.

My questions to you:

  1. Do you believe that societal verification can overcome its many challenges and become a trusted verification method?
  2. Are there novel approaches to arms control that societal verification offers that were not discussed in this paper?
  3. Would you be willing to participate in a societal verification program in your own country? Another country?
  4. Do you believe that the recent spate of online privacy concerns endangers societal verification?