Crowdsourcing Nuclear Arms Verification

“Crowdsourcing” and “Nuclear Arms Verification” these two terms are rarely seen together in the same sentence. One invokes the image of the ambitious youth at Silicon Valley, while the other seem to be a term only applicable to in extremely limited realms of D.C., Moscow and Vienna. Yet, as the readings for this week suggest, this idea being incorporated into future nuclear arms control treaties may not be too far-fetched.

The JASON report explores exactly this idea of taking advantage of crowd-sourced data management to effectively verify compliance and detect violations to arms controls regimes. The report takes notes of two possible avenues of such scheme – crowd-sourced data gathering and crowd-sourced data processing. The former refers to schemes in which individuals are encouraged or incentivized to gather and share relevant information, such as measurements, images, etc. In the latter scheme, individuals make use of public data (e.g. satellite imagery) to identify certain trends/patterns that could aid in detecting treaty violations. In both of these cases, recent technological advancements have magnified their potential and effectiveness. The JASON report notes that the pervasiveness of smartphones among ordinary citizens have created a reservoir of photographs at an unprecedented scale. Similarly, projects and firms such as PLANET illustrate how technological advancements, in this case small scale satellites, have greatly enriched the information available in public sources, which can then be exploited via crowd-sourced schemes. The author notes how the key to constructing an effective crowd-scheme is to provide participants with the means (e.g. public data and, a clearly defined outcome metric. Thus, this could be applied to nuclear arms control treaties, so long as there is a limited scope of irregularities to look for.

Needless to say, this idea of “crowd-sourcing” nuclear arms verification comes with significant risks and drawbacks. The JASON report makes a point that unlike earlier crowd-sourced information gathering schemes for terrorist activities, crowd-sourced nuclear arms verification may entail citizens effectively participating in the verification of their own country. These factors necessitate a strong ethical and legal framework that would protect the individuals participating in the crowd-sourcing, as well as preventing harmful information disclosure. Furthermore, touching upon the Woolf reading, past frameworks for arms control verification devote significant attention of strictly limiting the information sharing to those necessary to detect violations of the treaty. Should this framework be opened up to the public for crowd-sourcing, a monumental challenge would be to maintain the boundary of the public’s activities to that relevant to the treaty, and to prevent the public from uncovering classified information.

The promises and consequences of crowd-sourced arms verification, the main question I would like to pose in this blog post is the following: would the United States (or any other country) be compelled to adopt this framework for future treaties to prevent other nations gaining a comparative advantage? So far, the START treaty and the new START treaty between the United States and Russia rely on bilateral verification via NTM. Following the proverb “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, it makes sense for future regimes to continue to adopt this bilateral verification scheme unless otherwise. On the other hand, for offensive and defensive capabilities, technological advancements continually compel nations to update their arsenal to prevent their adversary from gaining an edge in its competition. This leads to the question – would there be a scenario in which the United States would be placed at a disadvantage because it will not adopt this new initiative of crowd-sourced verification/surveillance? — Kouta