Governance of Dual-Use Technologies: Theory and Practice


Back to table of contents
Elisa D. Harris, James M. Acton, and Herbert Lin
Global Nuclear Future

Robert Rosner

Modern concerns about dual-use technologies emerged in concert with fears about the proliferation of nuclear weapons–related technologies in the early days of the Cold War. These concerns focused on obvious targets, such as specialty steels, high-precision computer-aided manufacturing tools and facilities, and high-performance software and hardware; that is, materials and tools that are readily adapted to nuclear weapons–related design and manufacturing. More recently, focus has shifted to nonnuclear technological contexts—including, most prominently, biological and information technology—in which ongoing research and development has dramatically advanced human social and economic well-being, though at the cost of generating potential for these technologies to be harnessed for nefarious purposes.

Of course, the dual nature of technological advances—capable of elevating humanity and unleashing destruction upon it—long predates the total war and scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century. For example, the chemical advancements underlying the use of fireworks in imperial China were adapted by the tenth century AD to produce “fire arrows” for use in battle.1 What has changed since is not the balance of dual-use technologies, but the ability of modern weaponry to kill on drastically greater scales, affecting vast portions of the earth’s surface—a dynamic captured in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s sobering allusion to the two-thousand-year-old Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” when describing the Trinity nuclear explosion.2 We are faced today with weaponry that is appropriately referred to as weapons of mass destruction.

Given these stakes, how can we create effective international and national governance structures that provide a legal framework for regulating the flow of powerful dual-use technologies, as well as provide for enforcement mechanisms ensuring compliance with it? Technological innovation consistently follows a course of “trickle-down” effects: what is high precision today is run-of-the-mill tomorrow; capabilities once considered rare and extraordinary, and thus conducive to control, evolve to become the ordinary, slipping outside any possibility of enforceable regulation. The most obvious example is the evolution of computer technologies: the Herculean effort of the analog computers of the Manhattan Project is today totally eclipsed by the computing power of any budget-model laptop loaded with freely available modeling software. Similarly, computer-aided design and manufacturing has evolved over the past two decades such that the tools for high-precision manufacturing have become commodity products: a complete CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing) workshop, including extremely high-precision numerically controlled machining tools, can be assembled today at costs easily within the reach of well-funded terrorist groups.

In response to these challenges, the American Academy’s Global Nuclear Future Initiative, which I direct alongside Steven Miller and senior advisor Scott Sagan, decided to take a comprehensive look at the range of current efforts to constrain dual-use technologies—that is, efforts to create dual-use governance structures—with a particular focus on their effectiveness in controlling the spread of technologies that can have both beneficial and harmful consequences. The modern touchstone of such efforts has, as stated above, been the control of technologies that enable the construction of nuclear weapons; thus, a significant component of our study is an examination of the similarities and differences between the strategies used in the nuclear realm and those proposed for biological and information technology.

We began with a series of small workshops in 2012 that sought to introduce and explore the critical issues surrounding dual-use technologies; these workshops led to a larger meeting held at Stanford University in January 2013, from which we drew the conclusion that to reach a useful understanding of the dual-use issue, we needed to significantly narrow our focus. Ultimately, we organized our strategic approach around governance: What have we learned about the potential for dual-use technology control from the decades-long efforts to restrict the spread of technology related to nuclear and biological weapons and, more recently, cyber weapons?

To this end, we were fortunate to enlist Elisa D. Harris to lead a follow-on effort focused on these questions (and to address the issue of biological technology), and to convince James Acton and Herbert Lin to offer their views on the governance issues in the nuclear and information technology domains, respectively. The authors prepared detailed background papers that were discussed extensively at a meeting held in Chicago in March 2015. This volume contains revised versions of the papers presented by James Acton, Herbert Lin, and Elisa Harris at that meeting, together with introductory and concluding chapters by Elisa Harris.

Three painful reminders of how challenging the issue of dual-use governance is emerged from our discussions. First was the realization—obvious in retrospect—of how distinct the governance challenges are in the three technological domains we have chosen to study. For example, while there is general agreement internationally on the need to restrict access to the technologies enabling the development of nuclear weapons (with, of course, some considerable disagreements about implementation), no such consensus exists in the biological and information technology domains. Indeed, with biotechnology research, there is considerable opposition from the biological science community to any attempts to limit access to or dissemination of research findings, including information that could lead to great harm. And in the information technology arena, the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have done to you—goes largely ignored: national adversaries (and, in some cases, allies) routinely infiltrate each other’s networks to gain intelligence and network information (including the identification of vulnerabilities allowing future exploitation), to conduct economic espionage, or to cause damage directly.

Second, models of effective governance presume the capability to identify and punish violators of its terms. While there is some degree of attribution possible in the nuclear realm—including, for example, limited means of fingerprinting radioactive materials to trace them back to their origins—attribution is far more complex in the bio domain and may be practically impossible in the case of information technology. Finally, the issue of enforcement bedevils even the best understood of the dual-use realms. Consider the recent challenges in negotiating the terms of an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, and the pronounced failure of internationally supported sanctions to curtail the nuclear ambitions of North Korea.

Nevertheless, it is a remarkable fact that—even in light of these governance limitations—the number of major violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) remains very small. This, perhaps, offers hope that with further research, analysis, and vision like that presented in this volume, we will not end up with a nuclear, biotechnology, and cyber weapons free-for-all in the twenty-first century.

This Occasional Paper is part of the American Academy’s Global Nuclear Future Initiative, which is supported by generous grants from Carnegie Corporation of New York, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, The Flora Family Foundation, and The Kavli Foundation.



1. One of the earliest recorded uses of such rockets in warfare was the defense of the Chinese city of Tzu T’ung in AD 994.

2. Oppenheimer quoted from Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trans., Bhagavad-Gita: The Song of God (Madras, India: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1945), ch. xi, v. 32. The line is elsewhere given as “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”