State's 'Tracker' system follows weapons trail

Computer systems are being used to track nuclear components and other deadly materials in real time

Tom Clancy, hang up your hat. Members of the newest generation of spy hunters don't wear trench coats or smoke fancy cigarettes. They don't search for nuclear secrets in hollow tree stumps. And they don't whisper secret codes when they meet undercover operatives.

Instead, the people seeking to prevent nuclear proliferation around the world are using computer systems to track nuclear components and other deadly materials in real time.

The latest of these systems, spearheaded by the State Department for about $18 million and called Tracker, is now in place in nine countries — not including the United States — to help detect the importation, exportation and movement of material that could create a nuclear bomb, a dirty bomb or another weapon of mass destruction.

"It tracks anything — you could track toothbrushes with it, if you choose," said Steve Saboe, director of State's nonproliferation and disarmament fund.

Tracker was developed by FGM Inc. to keep data on the "cumulative buildup of sensitive technologies," according to Todd Harbour, the company's director of federal systems.

Tracker, a network application, uses Versant Corp. Inc.'s database management system as the technology infrastructure to help State track the near-real-time movement of strategic, dual-use and sensitive materials for countries worldwide.

As of April, Tracker was deployed to nine nations, including the former Soviet bloc countries of Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and Poland, where the transfer of technology and nuclear materials remains a major concern for the United States.

Beginning next year, Austria and Switzerland will adopt the system. In addition to the United States, Great Britain and Norway are helping to finance the program.

"There are many pieces needed to stop people from doing something illegal," Saboe said. "Tracking exports is one of them."

Experts agree, saying that the need for better detection has only grown since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Law enforcement agencies in the United States and around the world have repeatedly warned of possible future terrorist attacks.

Although this type of tracking system does not deal with rogue nations such as Iraq, Iran or Libya, anything is better than nothing, according to Michael Levi, director of strategic security projects at the Federation of American Scientists.

"A tool like this makes a lot of sense if you are looking for one person," Levi said. "It allows you to track smaller purchases rapidly." And it enables investigators to examine a complete system instead of just pieces, he added.

Although the United States is not using Tracker at its own borders, it has scrambled to tighten security at airports, shipping ports and land entries using other types of high-tech detection tools.

Like many of the systems rushed into service after Sept. 11, Tracker is based on the idea that information can be catalogued quickly and trends noted — especially for ingredients that become lethal when combined.

The system will look at discrete pieces of data that are "innocuous [when separate], but together set off an alarm," said Charles Wuischpard, Versant's vice president of North American sales.

For example, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, was the result of an explosive combination of fertilizer and ammonia. Now, if someone wanted to import to a nation that uses Tracker a million cubic tons of fertilizer one day and 100 million gallons of ammonia the next day, the transaction could be spotted and halted.

The system has a disadvantage in that it relies on governments issuing export licenses and putting the information into a computer. Each country owns its information and is solely responsible for the accuracy of it.

Carol Kelly, vice president and service director for electronic government strategies at the META Group Inc., said countries are more likely to fully participate in the system because they want to maintain a good relationship with the United States.

"Are the goods coming from a trusted port?" she asked. "Our allies, like Canada and Germany, care very much.... Places like Singapore want to be known as one of the trusted trading partners, and it becomes part of their economic development."

***

Ready to roll

Tracker, developed by FGM Inc. for the State Department, is a cross-platform export control and communication system. A three-tiered network application designed to be easy to use with little training, Tracker will help State and other governments track the movements and locations of sensitive materials used to make weapons of mass destruction.

Tracker includes:

* An object-oriented workflow that automates system functions.

* A framework that permits real-time analysis and visualization of complex relationships.

* An intuitive graphical user interface.

* A tool set that helps users develop new applications through ready-to-use components.

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