Trust, but socially verify

By Kirk C. Bansak | August 10, 2012

Imagine a world in which the maintenance of arms control agreements was not undertaken solely by mutually suspicious governments but shared with citizens. At first glance, the proposition may seem unrealistic, but the concept is hardly new. In 1958, Seymour Melman, then an associate professor of industrial and management engineering at Columbia University, described such a vision in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, when he introduced the idea of “inspection by the people” as a promising method for preventing evasion of arms control and disarmament obligations .

He explained that “[o]wing to the large number of people that would be required for carrying out a major evasion of a disarmament agreement,” public support for disarmament and involvement in inspection could create a potent force for deterring violations. “Only one leak of information from any of the people involved in preparing a secret stockpile would be sufficient to frustrate its use.” Building on this logic, Melman and other scholars (including Lewis C. Bohn, Grenville Clark, Louis Sohn, and Leo Szilard) put forth various proposals in the late 1950s and early 1960s for creating an international network of citizen reporting and whistle-blowing. As envisioned then, such a network would be overseen by an international inspectorate and might include both financial incentives and legal protections for informants.

The notion of inspection by the people did not appear out of thin air. It was anchored in national debates over the prospect of banning nuclear tests and the aspiration of achieving”general and complete disarmament,” which entered into the United Nations agenda in 1959. These and other initiatives could not, in the eyes of policymakers, simply be undertaken in good faith. Instead, future arms control and disarmament agreements would need to be verified. Recognizing that problems of access and technological constraints would limit the effectiveness of physical inspection, some scholars and professionals in the arms control community sought to expand the verification toolkit. Out of this effort came the concept of “non-physical inspection,” in which the signals being targeted for detection are not physical phenomena — facilities, materials, chemicals, seismic events, etc. — but knowledge of violations that “exist in the minds of human beings.”

Unfortunately, this cluster of scholarship went out of vogue later in the 1960s as the Cold War intensified. This period also coincided with the advent of reconnaissance satellites, which created a new focus for the verification mission.

Now, fast forward. Today, arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament efforts are once again generating demand for innovative verification solutions. In the realm of nuclear arms reduction treaties, satellite imagery and on-site inspections have proven of great but finite utility, and as strategic nuclear reductions bring arsenal numbers lower, compliance verification becomes increasingly important. The eventual regulation of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons will introduce new verification challenges. Meanwhile, the absence of a verification mechanism in the Biological Weapons Convention regime puts pressure on the international community to devise new methods of fostering biotechnological transparency and enhancing compliance with the treaty. And the miniaturization of commercial chemical reactors could threaten to obscure the ability of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s inspectorate to detect illicit production of chemical warfare agents .

For its part, the US government has worked to advance technical and technological methods of monitoring and inspection. But just as in the 1960s, there are inherent limits to physical verification. And as with most complex problems, there is no silver-bullet solution. As a result, the principles underlying non-physical inspection theory of the past are beginning to receive renewed attention, as today’s scholars and professionals conceptualize a supplementary arms control tool that may be termed “social verification.”

At base, “social verification” refers to the ways in which social actors and social activities can collectively contribute to the verification of arms control agreements. The notion is made truly powerful by the variety of new technologies at the public’s fingertips — including smart phones, social media, and other Web 2.0 tools — and the massive data they produce. Such technologies have already been successfully used in a variety of social movements. Whereas scholars in the 1960s drew a dichotomy between physical and non-physical forms of inspection, 21st century social verification can fuse the two domains. An energetic global civil society empowered with modern information and communications technologies can create opportunities of an unprecedented nature and scale for public participation in arms control.

To be sure, truly important services have already been rendered by organizations like the Institute for Science and International Security, whose analyses of commercial satellite imagery have provided many insights on foreign nuclear programs. Yet the idea of social verification goes beyond open-source, independent analysis performed by nongovernmental organizations, as important as such activities are. Today’s interconnected world is poised to enlist much wider participation in the maintenance of compliance by harnessing the power of the crowd.

For instance, imagine a situation in which entire populations could help monitor a ban on nuclear weapons testing simply by downloading a seismic detector app to their smart phones. Skeptics may demur, arguing that such a scenario sounds fanciful. Recent remarks by Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, suggest that she would disagree. In a not-too-distant hypothetical future, “[Cell phone-based] 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,” she observed.

Other possible techniques of social verification include the computer-aided analysis of social media streams, a method that is already applied by many communities to identify useful signals from the sea of online noise. Less high-tech methods have also been proposed, including formal citizen reporting and whistle-blowing systems modeled more squarely on the scholarship of the past. Of course, the features of the information age — including social networking and global societal interconnectedness — would lend more robustness to such systems today.

For now, it’s difficult to be completely sanguine about the prospects of social verification, given a host of obstacles to its effective implementation. Indeed, in thinking about these issues, Gottemoeller has cautioned, “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.” With time, research, and political effort, however, such obstacles are not insurmountable.

And of course, it is vital to remember that social verification does not and would not take place in a vacuum. Just as scholars and professionals argued for a plurality of arms control inspection techniques in the 1960s, a layered suite of verification methods is essential now. That suite is larger today, though, and some of the newer methods can perhaps be implemented with the click of a “share” icon.

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