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The Self-Appointed Spies Who Use Google Earth to Sniff Out Nukes

Amy Zegart
The Atlantic

Tracking nuclear threats used to be the sole province of secret agents and analysts at high-powered government intelligence agencies. Not anymore.

Today, the world of new nuclear sleuths is straight out of the Star Wars bar scene.

Peering into the hidden nuclear activities of North Korea, Iran, and other suspected proliferators are journalists, hobbyists, professors, students, political-opposition groups, advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, think tanks, and former senior government officials with informal links to international weapons inspectors, American policy makers, and intelligence leaders.

Among this wildly eclectic mix of individuals and organizations, some are amateurs. Others have extensive expertise. Some are driven by profit, or political causes. Others are driven by a mission to protect the United States and reduce global nuclear risks. Nearly all harbor an obsessive interest in nuclear secrets and finding creative ways to unlock them. Together, these self-appointed watchdogs are transforming American nonproliferation efforts—and largely for the better. Yet they also create new challenges for the U.S. government, which once enjoyed a near-monopoly on detailed surveillance imagery of hostile countries with nuclear ambitions. American intelligence agencies must now operate in a world where highly revealing information is sitting out in the open, for anyone to see and use.

David Schmerler, part of a team at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, goes by the nickname “Geolocation Jesus” because of his skills at pinpointing North Korean locations using far-ranging clues, such as Kim Jong Un’s public schedule, the number of skylights in a photographed room, Google Earth, and his knowledge gleaned from watching every North Korean missile propaganda video ever released. Frank Pabian, who works closely on a Stanford University team led by former Los Alamos Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, is one of the world’s leading imagery analysts and a former American weapons inspector. Then there’s Jacob Bogle, a coin dealer by day and North Korean mapping hobbyist by night who has created one of the world’s most detailed maps of North Korea from his home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In my own research, I’ve found 17 major groups or players actively tracking illicit nuclear activities around the world.

Not all of the work generated by this wide-ranging ecosystem is accurate, but much of it is pathbreaking. And all of it is unclassified.

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View full story: The Atlantic



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