Nuclear Monitoring and Verification in the Digital Age: Seven Recommendations for Improving the Process

Nuclear Verification Capabilities Independent Task Force of the Federation of American Scientists

Third Report – September 2017

The goal of this Task Force report is to offer findings and make recommendations regarding nonproliferation monitoring and verification in general; our observations are grounded in large part on the Task Force’s continued attention to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, nuclear developments in North Korea, and other nonproliferation challenges.

The Task Force seeks in this report to examine some of the significant developments in the current digital age as they relate to nonproliferation monitoring activities by both governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGO), to include:

  1. the accelerating quality and quantity of available imagery and other forms of remote sensing available outside governments;
  2. the growing volume and availability of worldwide transactional data related to commerce; and
  3. the ease of communicating findings, observations, and assertions about illicit activities related to nuclear programs and proliferation (with varying degrees of accuracy and truthfulness) through an increasing number of traditional and newer social media outlets.

Overlaying these three developments is the introduction of new forms of data analytics, including nascent artificial intelligence (AI) approaches such as machine learning, which serve to speed up both the process and pace at which these developments affect monitoring and verification activities. The sheer volume of available data, imagery, and analysis, some of it conflicting, has made the nuclear monitoring (data gathering) and verification (a policy determination ideally based on accurate data) more challenging due to a significant worsening in the signal-to-noise ratio.  Additionally, as all three of these developments reflect modern society’s dependence on the digital cloud, servers, data storage, websites, and internet communications, the need to ensure data integrity has increasingly become a salient concern.

Enabled by these increases in the speed and quantity of open data sources, the NGO community will play an increasing role in commenting on the JCPOA and other nonproliferation agreements, in facilitating greater transparency, and in helping to identify options, opportunities, and challenges. Use of these enhanced open-source tools by the NGO community is likely to increase as the technologies continue to improve and costs continue to decline. A paper co-written by Dr. Christopher Stubbs of Harvard University and Dr. Sidney Drell of Stanford University, titled “Public Domain Treaty Compliance Verification in the Digital Age,” described these new tools collectively as “Public Technical Means (PTM).”

The intent of the findings and recommendations of this Task Force report is to suggest some of the measures that could be taken to enable the work of nongovernmental bodies in nuclear monitoring. The report highlights a few of the many examples of additional analytical and information resources available to NGOs. The report further suggests ways in which relevant analysis and reports can be separated from misinformation, and ways in which transparency can be enhanced. The findings and recommendations are not intended to be comprehensive but rather to suggest some possible measures as illustrations of what might be possible and how to exploit these new tools.

The report examines examples in the human rights and business communities where centers for facilitation of monitoring activities and for validation of claims have been established independent of advocacy groups and governments. Our report calls for the establishment of similar centers focused on fusing and authenticating arms control and nonproliferation information. In the governmental arena, the report calls for more openness and better publicizing of the cooperative efforts of all parties working to ensure Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. The final set of recommendations focuses on methods for maintaining the integrity of monitoring data as well as the safety and privacy of people who are working on ensuring compliance with nonproliferation objectives. A short summary of the recommendations follows:

  1. An independent Network of Centers of Nonproliferation Authentication (NCNA) — a distributed network consisting of four to five separate institutions worldwide — should be created and funded outside of government and advocacy channels.
  2. The P5+1 and Iran should seek opportunities for public ceremonies, press coverage, and diplomatic events to mark important implementation steps.
  3. There should be periodic public updates on monitoring measures and U.S. support to the IAEA and the Joint Commission.
  4. There should be a priority diplomatic push by members of the P-5+1and other interested states, supported by the international business community, toward encouraging Iranian openness and more public release of data concerning implementation and compliance steps by Iran.
  5. A trusted body of outside experts should be created for the Iranian nuclear agreement to review monitoring efforts and build confidence even among skeptics that serious and appropriate monitoring steps were being taken.
  6. NGOs, in the nonproliferation and nuclear arms control sectors that are collecting, handling, processing, and storing sensitive personal information, should take the necessary actions and use appropriate tools to protect both the information and the physical safety of its providers.
  7. Funders of nonproliferation NGOs should consider robust funding for upgrades in cyber security in order to protect key data and should insist that fundees adopt a culture of maintaining good “cyber hygiene” by their personnel as a condition of receiving grants.

To read the complete report on the Federation of American Scientists’ website, click here.

To read an accompanying working paper, “Tracking Proliferation through Trade Data” by Senior Research Associate Matthew Godsey and Executive Director Valerie Lincy, click here.