Software on the trail of deadly weapons

State Department gives away tools to detect harmful exports and imports

Get more information about Tracker at the organization's Web site

The State Department has given software to 10 nations to help them spot licensed imports and exports that could be used to build a nuclear device or other deadly weapons.

The program started about seven years ago when the department realized it did not have an effective data-mining tool to find dual-use materials being imported or exported. Dual-use materials have legitimate, benign uses, but they can become threats when used in other ways. They include technology and biochemical or nuclear materials.

The department came up with the seed money, and the software called Tracker was born. Ten countries are using it, and 13 others are testing it.

It was developed by FGM, a software company located in a small industrial park in Reston, Va., near Dulles International Airport. The company recently released its latest version of the product, Tracker 4.0.

Tracker permits real-time tracking of strategic, dual-use and hazardous materials. It is available in 22 languages, and it is used to help nations find material masquerading as a legitimate export or import. Officials can use Tracker to detect trends and connections that may signal a nefarious purpose for otherwise legitimate import and export goods.

"Instead of having to intercept something on its way, you stop the transaction before it even starts," said one State official, who requested anonymity.

The Tracker program is designed to help countries improve the effectiveness of their exporting functions "so they can get legitimate things through the system quickly, and so they can have a greater chance of picking up elements that are suspicious," the official added. The department has spent $35 million on the program so far.

In addition to combing import and export records, Tracker could be useful to other U.S. agencies, such as the Commerce and Defense departments, which deal with import/export regulations.

FGM also built Tracker to a service-oriented architecture to conform to the case management line of business, one of the five lines of business established by the Office of Management and Budget.

Todd Harbour, the company's director of federal systems, said the software tracks not only exports and imports, but relationships among entities to flag patterns that might indicate a problem. He said the challenge for users is to identify the ways in which some material can be put to deadly use.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has circulated a list of 100 materials that could be used to help build a nuclear device, but Harbour said it is still difficult for authorities in any country to detect contraband without using technology to help them.

"Tracker is built to track those kinds of things," Harbour said.

But the product does not keep an official tally of how much material has been detected and stopped because countries do not share information about what they have derailed, Harbour said.

Four years ago, something happened that underlined the urgency of stopping the traffic of deadly weapons parts, said Ivan Oelrich, director of strategic security at the Federation of American Scientists. The U.S. government suspected that North Korea was importing an unusual aluminum alloy for a gas centrifuge plant. Such plants enrich uranium that can be used in a nuclear weapon.

When American officials confronted North Korea's government with the information, North Korean officials acknowledged that they had a gas centrifuge plant.

The United States detected the aluminum shipments without Tracker, but products like it are becoming increasingly important in monitoring exports and imports, Oelrich said.

"What this is trying to do is get people [who are] exploiting the legal export system," Oelrich said. "Get a piece here, a piece there. No one person can check all of it. To have a computer system that does it certainly does not hurt. It would be useful in other things besides the nuclear realm."

Ed Goff, deputy director of State's Office of Terrorism Finance and Economic Sanctions Policy, said the office plans to test Tracker in the next month or two. The office provides background information for other agencies reviewing whether to approve an export license.

"We'll be able to look at patterns we've never looked at before," Goff said.

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